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Hamas heads to Moscow in bid for legitimacy

Written by: Staff

GAZA, Mar 2 (Reuters) Hamas embarks on a quest for international legitimacy tomorrow with an official visit to Russia, marking the Islamic militant group's first talks with a major power involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

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 recognising 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 emphasised it was sticking to the view of international mediators.

Hamas 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 today.

''The visit in itself is a declaration of the failure of pressures 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 co-existence, 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 a Hamas delegation led by exiled politburo chief Khaled Meshaal they must seek peace with Israel to win worldwide acceptance.

Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters in Jerusalem that Russian President Vladimir Putin had assured him that ''he completely adheres to these ... conditions and this is what he will present to the Hamas delegation when they arrive''.

An Israeli official said his government was encouraged by reports Putin would not lead talks with Hamas. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to head Moscow's delegation.

''The international consensus that they (Hamas) are not a legitimate partner for dialogue is still substantively holding, because they are not getting the level (of meeting) that they want,'' the official said on condition of anonymity.

By inviting Hamas to Moscow, Putin is seen as trying to boost Russia's diplomatic clout in the Middle East, which has been on the wane since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

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

''Everyone seems happy about Russia doing the job no one else dares to,'' said Sergei Kazennov, an analyst for Russia's Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

(Additional reporting by Dean Yates in Jerusalem) REUTERS OM KP1825

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