Marwan al-Barghuthi also used a statement printed in Palestinian newspapers on Saturday to condemn the current security chaos in the Gaza Strip, partly caused by militants loyal to his own Fatah faction.

In his first address since campaigning began on Tuesday for the vote on 25 January, al-Barghuthi said: "The Palestinian Authority should avoid making any connection between the health of Sharon and the election date. The election is a national Palestinian issue and it must not be linked to any foreign concerns such as what is happening in Israel with Sharon."

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has said he sees no reason why Sharon's hospitalisation should lead to a postponement of the election.

East Jerusalem delay

However, he has also vowed to cancel the polls if he does not get a guarantee from the Israeli government that Palestinian residents of occupied and annexed east Jerusalem can take part.

A decision on east Jerusalem was due from Israel in a few days, but any verdict has slipped down the list of priorities since Sharon's brain haemorrhage.

Al-Barghuthi, despite serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, will head the list of Fatah candidates in the elections. He criticised the conduct of members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Fatah, in the southern Gaza Strip earlier this week.

In an attempt to secure the release of a local leader who was arrested over the kidnapping of three Britons, al-Aqsa followers stormed several government buildings in the town of Rafah before bulldozing their way through a wall on the Egyptian border. Two border guards were killed.


Al-Barghuthi  said: "We deeply regret and strongly condemn what happened in Rafah. The Egyptians who died should be accorded the status of martyrs."