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Hamas leaders to Moscow next month
Updated: 2006-02-17 09:22

A high-level delegation from the Palestinian group Hamas will hold talks with Russian officials in Moscow early next month, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Thursday, heralding a meeting the Kremlin hopes will cement its central role in Mideast diplomacy.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh waves in front a poster of late Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza February 16, 2006. A high-level delegation from the Palestinian group Hamas will hold talks with Russian officials in Moscow early next month. [AP] 
"We have reached an agreement in principle about the arrival in early March of a delegation of the Hamas leadership to Moscow," the ministry said in a statement.

The militant group's victory in recent parliamentary elections has prompted threats from the United States and European Union, which threaten to cut off massive aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas — responsible for scores of suicide attacks and designated a terrorist organization by many Western nations — recognizes Israel and renounces violence.

Russia, with backing from France, broke the united Western front on Hamas and invited its leaders to Moscow for talks aimed at persuading the radical group to moderate its stance. The invitation, announced at a news conference by President Vladimir Putin, was the latest bid by Moscow to invigorate its role in Mideast peacemaking after years of taking a back seat to the United States.

A Western diplomat in Moscow said Thursday that Russia was trying to use its distinctive position in the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators — not having formally designated Hamas as a terrorist organization — to make headway with the militant group.

Similarly, Russia is using its open channels with Iran to try to negotiate a resolution to the crisis over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

Russian officials have promised to demand that Hamas recognize the state of Israel and abandon the use of violence.

But the diplomat said the talks were not expected to significantly affect Middle East peacemaking. "In an ideal world, you'd see a 180-degree turn," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "I don't think anyone expects that."

The other members of the Quartet are the United Nations, the EU and the US.

Turkey, a country with close ties to both Israel and the Palestinians, also has been seeking to play a mediating role. Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' exiled political leader, was in Ankara on Thursday for talks where Turkish officials urged the group to renounce violence.

Meanwhile, a top military officer said Thursday that Russia could decide on weapons deliveries to the Palestinians after the talks with Hamas leaders, the Interfax news agency reported.

"This decision must be made with the new Palestinian leadership," the army's chief of the general staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, was quoted as saying.

He said that two helicopters expected to be delivered to the Palestinians would be unarmed and were intended for transporting the territory's leaders.

"Armored equipment is also intended for stabilizing the situation," Interfax quoted Baluyevsky as saying.

The Palestinian Authority plans to buy two Mi-17 transport helicopters and 50 armored personnel carriers, Interfax said.

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