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Hamas heads to Moscow in search for legitimacy

Written by: Staff
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MOSCOW, Mar 3 (Reuters) Hamas embarks on a quest for international legitimacy today 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 US-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.

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 programme,'' State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

Hamas, whose delegation is due to arrive in Moscow early today, 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 yesterday.

''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 West Asia on the wane since the Soviet Union fell.

Russia has also been trying 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.

REUTERS DH RAI0549

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