Abu Dhabi: UN chief Ban Ki-moon yesterday called for a lasting ceasefire in Gaza and the opening of crossings into the war-battered Palestinian territory, at the start of a 24-hour visit to the UAE.

"We must have a ceasefire, durable and sustainable," the United Nations secretary-general told journalists.

"Crossings must be open. All the crossings must be open to make the ceasefire durable," Ban said. "The longer we can have a ceasefire, the better for peace in the Middle East."

Foreign ministers from nearly a dozen Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, were gathering in Abu Dhabi, yesterday for what was touted as a meeting to bolster Egypt's mediation mission.

The meeting appeared to be aimed at showing support for Abbas and pushing Hamas to accept a truce deal and reconciliation. Key Hamas ally Syria was not invited to the session. Saudi Arabia has offered its own proposals to help along Palestinian reconciliation efforts, said Nabeel Amr, the Palestinian representative to Egypt.

"The essence of the Saudi ideas is to provide more support for the Egyptian initiative by involving Arabs in it," Amr said.

He did not provide details, but Saudi involvement signalled a more assertive role for the regional powerhouse, which largely stayed on the sidelines during the Gaza crisis. The high-profile Saudi involvement began Monday, with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal holding surprise meetings in Cairo on Monday with Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Abbas, meanwhile, is on a European tour seeking to ensure that he wins a role in any future Gaza deal. He wants support for a Palestinian unity government and a role in rebuilding Gaza. Yesterday, Abbas was in Paris, meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the president of the lower house of France's parliament.

Egypt is hoping to forge a truce deal by tomorrow, and a five-member Hamas delegation was in Cairo yesterday for talks with the country's chief mediator.

Ahmad Abdul Hadi, a Lebanon-based Hamas official, said the movement is ready to commit to a year-long truce, with the possibility of extending it, in exchange for open borders.

"The coming hours are going to be sensitive, in order to bring out a draft of an agreement, regarding the calm and opening the borders of Gaza," Abdul Hadi told Gaza's Al Quds Radio.

"There is an agreement in principle about a calm [ceasefire] for one year. But the movement could show flexibility regarding the time ... if there are guarantees and commitments to lift the sanctions and open the borders."

Abdul Hadi said Hamas rejects a gradual opening of the border crossings or linking a truce deal to a release of Israeli Sgt Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas-allied fighters in Gaza since June 2006.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the movement is open to extending the ceasefire to 18 months. He said key to any truce is that Egypt open its crossing with Gaza.

Israel and Hamas called ceasefires on January 18, ending Israel's 22-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Israel wants a halt to Palestinian fighter rocket fire, as well as a stop to weapons smuggling. Hamas' top demand is the lifting of the blockade, which has allowed only a trickle of supplies into the Gaza Strip since 2007.

But Israel does not want any deal that gives Hamas a role in controlling Gaza border crossings out of concern that would permit continued weapons smuggling. So Egypt has focused on getting Abbas' forces back to the Gaza crossings, perhaps with some form of symbolic Hamas presence, along with European monitors.

The Abu Dhabi meeting also underlines Arab worries over Iran, which many accuse of backing Hamas to increase its own infulence in the region. Hamas' top political leader, Khalid Mesha'al, visited Iran Monday, praising Tehran for its support during Israel's Gaza attacks. The Saudi Cabinet issued a statement late Monday urging "unified Arab ranks, to serve Arab issues," and warning of "regional and foreign ambitions cloaked under the guise of support for Arab causes" - a clear reference to Iran.

- With inputs from Dr Abdul Hadi Al Timimi, Abu Dhabi Editor,and Dina El Shammaa Staff Reporter

Abu Dhabi: The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who arrived in UAE on Tuesday said "the crossings in Gaza strip must be opened" to allow humanitarian and relief aid into the devastated Strip after three weeks of Israeli bombardments which started on December 27, 2008.

Answering a question on the UN's position on the latest offer from Hamas of a one-year "true" truce for the opening by Israel of Gaza crossings, Ban Ki-moon said "We must have a durable and sustainable ceasefire (in Gaza) through diplomatic efforts."

The UN Chief's remarks came in statements to the press upon arrival on Tuesday afternoon in Abu Dhabi.

"The longer the ceasefire holds, the better for the peace process in the region (Middle East)", Ban Ki-moon added.

Observers here say the situation in Gaza and effrots for a reconcialiation among Palestian groups might be discussed by the UN Chief and Arab ministers already in the UAE.

During his two-day visit to the UAE, Ban Ki-moon will hold several meetings with senior officials in the UAE.