GAZA, Apr 4 (Reuters) Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leading Hamas figure, announced plans to visit China and other Asian countries next month after meeting a senior Chinese diplomat in the Gaza Strip today.
Israel and the United States have sought to isolate the Islamic militant group, which swept parliamentary elections in January and formally took control of the Palestinian Authority last week.
''We will visit countries of East Asia, and China will be the first country we will visit in that region,'' Zahar told reporters. ''I have spoken to the ambassador and they are ready to receive a Palestinian delegation any time.'' At a joint press conference with Zahar, China's representative in the West Bank and Gaza, Yang Wei Guo, said Beijing respected Hamas's election victory.
''We have explained the Chinese position that supports the Palestinian people in their just struggle to regain their national rights and to regain occupied land,'' the Chinese envoy said, without referring to an invitation for Zahar to visit Beijing.
China has long supported Palestinian calls for an independent homeland, but it also has strong ties with Israel.
Zahar did not say which other countries in Asia he planned to visit.
TALKS WITH HAMAS The United States wants to isolate Hamas economically and diplomatically and is pressing other countries to do the same.
But several countries including Russia and Saudi Arabia have balked at cutting off contacts.
Hamas officials yesterday said they held talks two months ago with French officials and more recently with an Indian diplomat, despite U S and Israeli pressure on countries to shun the group until it renounces violence and recognises Israel.
The group is sworn to Israel's destruction and has vowed to keep fighting Israel since taking over the Palestinian government. It says talks with Israel would be a waste of time.
Israel, which regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation, has cut tax revenue transfers to the Palestinians while Western aid to the Palestinian Authority is under threat.
Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the Jewish state favoured a two-state solution to the conflict but added the international community should isolate Hamas until it recognised Israel and accepted interim peace agreements.
''We would be concerned about giving recognition and legitimacy to an unreformed Hamas, which would be sending the wrong message and could erode any chance there is for Hamas to alter its position and reform,'' Regev said.
Last week, Washington ordered U S diplomats and contractors to cut off contacts with Palestinian ministries, including independents and technocrats in the new Hamas government.
Underscoring international differences in how to deal with the militant group, Russia invited top Hamas officials to Moscow early last month for high-level talks despite opposition from Israel.
Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings against Israelis since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000, but has largely abided by a year-old truce.
REUTERS VJ HT1745