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Hamas heads to Moscow in search for legitimacy
Updated: 2006-03-03 10:50

Hamas embarks on a quest for international legitimacy on Friday with an official visit to Russia, marking the Islamic militant group's first talks with a major power involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Hamas heads to Moscow in search for legitimacy
Heads of Palestinian families shake hands with Hamas leader and the Palestinian Authority's next Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (L) in Gaza February 28, 2006. [AP]

Although it deals a blow to U.S.-led efforts to isolate Hamas since it swept Palestinian elections in January, Russia's mediation is seen by some in the West as a chance to talk the faction into renouncing violence and recognizing Israel.

In Israel, the Russian overtures toward Hamas drew denunciations at first. But the Jewish state has adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Russia emphasized it was sticking to the view of international mediators.

The United States said Russia must put pressure on Hamas to change its ideology.

"Our position is that if you are going to meet with a terrorist group, you should make it clear to them that their way of doing business is unacceptable, that their philosophy is contrary to the norms of the civilized world, and that they should get with the program," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

Hamas, whose delegation is due to arrive in Moscow early on Friday, regards the visit as a chance to push its position on the international stage.

"We will listen to the Russian government's vision on the Arab-Israeli conflict and we will clarify our own vision," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Thursday.

"The visit in itself is a declaration of the failure of pressure exerted by the United States on the world to besiege Hamas," he said. "Now Hamas is on the threshold of international legitimacy, thanks to the visit by Hamas leaders to Moscow."

Hamas, whose charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction, has masterminded 60 suicide bombings during a Palestinian revolt but has largely abided by a truce declared last year which paved the way for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

While so far ruling out permanent coexistence, Hamas has said it could accept a long-term ceasefire if Israel also quits all of the occupied West Bank and accepts an influx of Palestinian war refugees -- both non-starters for Israel.

Russia, among the Quartet of mediators for a "road map" to peaceful Palestinian statehood, is expected to tell the Hamas delegation, led by exiled politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, it must seek peace with Israel to win worldwide acceptance.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to head Moscow's delegation.

By inviting Hamas to Moscow, President Vladimir Putin is seen as trying to boost Russia's diplomatic clout in the Middle East, on the wane since the Soviet Union fell.

Russia has also been trying to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear program, by proposing that Iranian uranium enrichment -- a process that can produce bombs -- takes place on its soil.

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