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Mideast Quartet discusses next steps on Hamas

Written by: Staff

BRUSSELS, Mar 16 (Reuters) The international ''Quartet'' of mediators on the W Asia today met to discuss how to deal with Hamas, a day after their envoy threatened to quit complaining of indecision among the group's members.

James Wolfensohn told a U.S. Congressional hearing yesterday the mandate and backing he had from the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations were unclear after the Islamic militant group's landslide poll win in January.

Wolfensohn said the Quartet was undecided on issues such as how to channel funds to meet Palestinian humanitarian needs while bypassing Hamas.

The major powers insist a Hamas-led government, now being formed, must recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past agreements or lose international assistance.

The talks among senior official in Brussels were billed as a simple exchange of views, but Wolfensohn's comments and Palestinian unrest this week targeting Westerners have underlined the difficulties in dealing with the situation.

''They will focus on relations with Palestinians and how to continue support,'' said one diplomat ahead of the talks, adding it was possible that Wolfensohn's comments would feature.

Quartet members have stuck to their joint line calling on Hamas to commit itself to peace with Israel or risk a cut-off of aid to the Palestinian Authority, but diplomats say nuances have emerged among their individual positions.

Some EU officials have suggested Hamas should be given time to go through a gradual shift in policy, while Western diplomatic sources have said some U.S. officials are pushing for immediate steps to be taken against the Islamists.

Washington has threatened to curtail contacts with President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and other parties if they were to join a government led by Hamas, the sources said this week.

The EU meanwhile has sought to bolster Abbas as a potential bulwark of moderation against Hamas and invited him to Brussels and Strasbourg this week in a gesture of demonstrative backing.

However, that trip was cut short after the seizure by Israel of a top Palestinian militant from a Jericho jail sparked a wave of unrest in the Palestinian territories, a development some commentators fear could undermine Abbas's credibility.

Washington and Israel cut funds to the Palestinian Authority when Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was nominated as prime minister.

But the 25-nation EU has given the Palestinians a short-term lifeline, releasing 120 million euros (3 million) in aid that mostly bypassed the Palestinian Authority.

Reuters OM DB2222

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