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France's Chirac to press Egypt to lean on Hamas

By Staff
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PARIS, Apr 18 (Reuters) French President Jacques Chirac will press his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak this week to try to convince the Hamas-led Palestinian government to commit to the West Asia peace process.

Aides said the two leaders would also discuss a standoff between Iran and the international community over Tehran's nuclear programme, when Chirac visits Egypt tomorrow for a two-day stay.

''The president believes Egypt has a special role to play in convincing Hamas to change its positions: recognising Israel, renouncing violence, respecting the peace agreements,'' Chirac's spokesman Jerome Bonnafont said today.

Egypt was a ''constant element of balance and moderation'' in the region, he said.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group that won Palestinian elections in January, has refused to amend its charter calling for destruction of Israel. It also angered Israel and the West by describing as ''self defence'' yesterday's suicide bombing by another group that killed nine people in Tel Aviv.

The United States and European Union have cut direct aid to the Hamas-led government for failing to meet their demands, prompting warnings that the Palestinian territories face economic collapse unless Arab governments step in with cash.

Egypt, a key player in West Asia peace moves as one of the few Arab countries to recognise Israel, wants Hamas to meet US and European conditions but opposes sanctions, arguing Hamas should be given more time to change its position.

''Stopping aid to the Palestinian Authority is tantamount to punishing the Palestinian people and is incompatible with values and respect for the popular will,'' its state news agency quoted Mubarak as telling a group of Egyptian lawmakers today.

Mubarak has repeatedly said cutting off aid would be counterproductive and drive more Palestinians towards extremism.

Iran is giving 50 million dollar to the Palestinian Authority, to help plug funding gaps caused by the US and EU aid moves and Israel's freeze on the transfer of customs and tax receipts.

NUCLEAR PROGRAMME Chirac and Mubarak will also discuss Iran's nuclear programme, as France and other UN Security Council members push Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.

Iran defiantly told world powers today it would pursue its right to develop nuclear technology whatever was decided at a meeting of leading powers in Moscow later in the day.

The United States, which accuses Iran of seeking atomic bombs, was expected to push for targeted sanctions when it meets the UN Security Council's other permanent members -- Britain, France, China and Russia -- plus Germany, in Moscow. Iran says its nuclear goals are purely peaceful.

Egyptian public opinion has been favourable towards France because of its opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But analysts say the mood has shifted due to a widespread perception that the European Union is now following the US lead on Hamas and Iran.

French ambassador Philippe Coste faced hostile questioning at a Cairo news conference today from Egyptian journalists who accused Paris of double standards in the West Asia.

REUTERS OM KN2028

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