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PLO keeps Abbas as Palestinian president

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) decided on Wednesday that Mahmoud Abbas will stay on as Palestinian president after his term expires next month, PLO officials told Reuters.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) central council in the West Bank city of Ramallah December 15, 2009. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

PLO Central Council members said Abbas, whose tenure ends on January 25, will remain in his post until elections can be held, extending until further notice the term of the Western-backed leader who heads the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Presidential and legislative elections called for January 24 were cancelled due to a ban imposed by the Islamist Hamas group on participation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which controls the coastal enclave, disputes Abbas’s legitimacy.

Not part of the PLO, Hamas has already declared as illegitimate any extension of the 74-year-old’s tenure.

“The president has decided to stay in his post,” Tawfiq al-Tirawi, a PLO Central Council member, told Reuters.

The PLO, established in 1964, groups a range of Palestinian factions and is recognised internationally as the body representing the Palestinians. It is dominated by the Fatah movement led by Abbas.

Frustrated at the frozen state of peace talks with Israel, Abbas has said he will not run again for the presidency. But no date has been set for an election and he has no obvious successor.

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The Central Council backed his rejection of any resumption of peace talks with Israel until it fully halts settlement building in the West Bank, part of the territory where the Palestinians aim to establish a state.

“We will not go to negotiations until Israel fully halts settlement activities and agrees to a term of reference for such negotiations,” Tirawi said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in November a partial, 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank settlements.

Netanyahu’s restrictions do not apply to East Jerusalem areas of the West Bank which the Jewish state has annexed in a move not recognised internationally. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

Abbas, who faces U.S. pressure to resume talks right away, told the PLO Central Council meeting on Tuesday he would do so only if Israel agreed to fully halt settlement building for a certain period of time. Israel and the Palestinians have accused each other of trying to avoid negotiations.

Abbas, an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords that launched the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, replaced Yasser Arafat as head of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority after his death in 2004. The PLO Central Council created the Palestinian Authority under the interim peace accords with Israel.

The council also decided to extend the term of the Palestinian Legislative Council -- a dysfunctional parliament in which Hamas won a majority in 2006 elections. The chamber, whose term also expires in January, has not met since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

An Egyptian proposal for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah slated presidential and legislative elections for June, 2010. Fatah endorsed the document but Hamas has reservations about it and has refused to sign.

Writing by Tom Perry in Ramallah; Editing by Charles Dick