Archive for Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hamas confirms Moscow trip

February 12, 2006

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— Hamas militants confirmed Saturday they plan to travel to Moscow this month for talks with President Vladimir Putin, a trip that has enraged Israeli leaders, who fear the international community's resolve to shun the Islamic group is weakening.

Hamas said it did not expect Russia to impose any conditions on the group, despite U.S. calls for Moscow to send a clear message that Hamas halt attacks on Israel and recognize the Jewish state.

"We are going to present our positions ... about the political developments and issues related to the rights of our people," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

Also Saturday, a shadowy Palestinian militant group released an Egyptian diplomat kidnapped earlier in the week, while Israeli aircraft pounded suspected rocket-launching targets in northern Gaza. No injuries were reported in the attacks.

Putin extended the invitation to Hamas on Thursday following its victory in last month's Palestinian legislative elections.

The militant group, which remains committed to Israel's destruction and has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, is poised to form a new Palestinian government in the coming weeks.

The United States also reacted coolly to the Russian invitation, although officials conceded there was nothing they could do to stop the meeting.

Russia and the United States, along with the European Union and United Nations, make up the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators.

The Quartet, the main backer of the "road map" peace plan, has called on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Israeli Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit on Friday accused Putin of "stabbing Israel in the back." Further upsetting Israel, France has come out in support of Russia.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry defended Putin's decision, saying a dialogue with Hamas must be started immediately to get the Mideast peace process back on track.

"The Russian side is convinced that in the interests of guaranteeing prospects for restoring the process of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement on the basis of the 'road map,' it is necessary not to drag out the beginning of talks with Hamas," the ministry said.

Although an official date for the visit to Russia has not been set, Abu Zuhri said Saturday he expected it to take place later this month.

Egypt, a key ally of the Palestinians, has been trying to broker the formation of a new Palestinian government following Hamas' election victory.

The Egyptian diplomat's abduction, carried out in daylight, underscored the lawlessness plaguing Gaza in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from the area in September.

A previously unknown group calling itself the "Al Ahrar Brigades" - Arabic for "the liberated people" - claimed responsibility Friday, demanding the release of dozens of Palestinian criminals held in Egyptian jails.

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