Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah have held two days of talks in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

A joint statement said that the meetings had restored an "atmosphere of trust and mutual respect".

The two factions have been bitterly opposed since June 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza by force.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas branded the seizure a "coup", sacked a Hamas-led unity cabinet and revived talks with Israel.

Senegal is hosting the talks because the country's President, Abdoulaye Wade, is currently head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Senegalese officials said the talks aimed "at levelling divergences and reconciling the Palestinian family".

The joint statement at the end of what is intended to be the first in a series of meetings in Dakar was signed by Hamas representative Emad Khalid Alamy and Fatah's Hikmat Zeid, the Palestinian ambassador in Senegal.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman based in the Gaza Strip, called on the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to cease arrests of Hamas members.

"Hamas has taken steps [towards dialogue] and the president of the authority and Fatah movement in the West Bank are demanded to take similar steps to prove seriousness and concern and good intentions," Mr Barhoum told the Reuters news agency.

Territories split

The Hamas takeover of Gaza last June in effect split the Palestinian territories, Gaza and the West Bank, into two separately ruled entities.

Analysts say Fatah's holding talks with Hamas may threaten Israel's acceptance of Mr Abbas as a negotiating partner.

But six months of US-sponsored peace talks have made little headway, which has weakened Mr Abbas and prompted growing criticism by him of Israel.

Mr Abbas had until now refused to talk to Hamas unless it relinquished Gaza.

Israel has meanwhile closed off the Gaza Strip and blocked all but the most essential humanitarian supplies after militants stepped up rocket attacks from the territory.

Several abortive efforts have been made, including by Egypt and Yemen, to repair the rift between Hamas and Mr Abbas's Fatah party.

Hamas, shunned by Israel as a terrorist group, claims to be the legitimate government in the occupied Palestinian territories after winning parliamentary elections in 2006.

BBC News