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Barguthi quits Palestine presidential race
Jailed intifada leader Marwan al-Barghuti has called off his campaign to become Palestinian president and has thrown his support behind PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas.
In a statement read out by his campaign manager Ahmad Ghnaim on Sunday, the West Bank Fatah leader said he wanted to act in the "national interest" and back Abbas who is the official candidate for the dominant Palestinian faction.
"I again stress my support to brother Abu Mazen [Abbas], the nominee of the movement who is a dear friend and somebody who deserves the position of president.
"I wish him every success in his mission on the road to achieving freedom, the return [of refugees], independence, peace and national democracy."
Al-Barghuti had been under massive internal and international pressure to withdraw from the campaign, after his candidacy threatened to split Fatah down the middle and derail the US-sponsored Middle East peace process.
The 45-year-old leader was handed five life sentences in June for his alleged part in deadly anti-Israeli attacks. Al-Barguthi denies the charges.
He angered and astonished Fatah's leadership on 11 December when he announced his candidacy just hours before the close of nominations.
He has since been threatened with expulsion from Fatah and the Israeli government has made it clear that they would not contemplate his early release from prison.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has also called his nomination "problematic", while European donors have made behind-the-scenes threats to slash aid if he were to become head of the Palestinian Authority.
While Al-Barguthi is seen as the father of the intifada, Abbas has been an outspoken critic of the militarisation of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation.
In his statement, Al-Barguthi insisted that Abbas remain committed to "the national principles", demanding among other things that he campaign for the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and for the release of all Palestinian prisoners.
He also urged the Palestinians "to hold onto the option of intifada and resistance and to combine it with negotiations".
Al-Barguthi's withdrawal leaves the path clear for 69-year-old Abbas to sweep to victory next month.
Polls had been showing him running neck and neck with Al-Barguthi who remains hugely popular on the Palestinian street.
Islamic resistance movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad have announced that they are boycotting the presidential election.
Both organisations oppose the 1993 Oslo autonomy accords which paved the way for the Palestinian Authority.
Al-Barguthi's change of heart came after several visits to his prison cell in recent days by some of his closest supporters, including Ghnaim and the inmate's wife Fadwa.
Ghnaim said that Al-Barguthi's initial candidacy had managed to advertise the plight of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons.
"By nominating himself, Marwan delivered a message reminding everybody that Palestinians are still under occupation and running elections in such circumstances is not a natural situation," he said.
Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti has withdrawn from next month's Palestinian elections.
The surprise move, announced by an aide, comes 10 days after he declared himself a candidate to succeed the late Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader.
Mr Barghouti is serving five life terms imposed by an Israeli court in June for the killing of four Israelis and a Greek monk.
The Israelis had said they would not release him if he were elected.
Mr Barghouti's aides announced his move at a press conference in Ramallah.
Aide Ahmed Ghneim read out a letter from Mr Barghouti that said he was supporting the candidacy of Mahmoud Abbas, the choice of the mainstream Fatah party.
But the letter was also critical of Fatah, some members of which had condemned Mr Barghouti for splitting the party in running against Mr Abbas.
Mr Barghouti, Fatah's charismatic 45-year-old West Bank general secretary, was captured in 2002.
His letter also spelled out his opposition to the disarming of any Palestinian groups or any deal with Israel that did not secure the release of all Palestinian prisoners.
The aide said Mr Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, would formally withdraw her husband's candidacy on Monday.
Recent opinion polls had suggested there would have been a close race between Mr Barghouti and Mr Abbas on 9 January.
After Arafat's death, Mr Barghouti had expressed backing for Mr Abbas, 69.
But his supporters pressured him to change his mind.
He and they were angry at what they believed was Fatah's failure to appreciate his show of support, analysts say.
In particular, Mr Abbas made no statement demanding Mr Barghouti's release from prison ahead of any return to negotiations with Israel.
However, the Fatah leadership maintained a hard line and threatened to expel Mr Barghouti if he did not withdraw his candidacy.
The BBC's Simon Wilson in Jerusalem says that with the popular Islamic militant group, Hamas, boycotting the poll, there are now no other serious challengers in sight for Mr Abbas.
Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, called a news conference in Ramallah to read a letter from her husband harshly critical of the Fatah leadership but implying that he would pull out of the race. Aides said Fadwa would formally withdraw his candidacy on Monday.