JERUSALEM, May 4 (Reuters) Sweden has granted a visa to a Hamas minister, the first by a European country since the militant group took control of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian officials said today.
Palestinian minister for refugee affairs, Atef Odwan, told Reuters he had been granted a visa by Sweden to attend a conference there on refugees to be held on May 6 to May 8.
''I appreciate the position by Sweden which dealt with the issue not on political grounds but on purely academic grounds,'' he said.
Swedish officials were not immediately available for comment.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said it was the first time an official in the new Hamas-led government was given a visa to a European country.
''We encourage other European countries to follow the brave move by the Swedish authorities,'' Zuhri said.
The European Union, of which Sweden is a member, has severed political contacts with the Palestinian Authority, which took power on March 29.
The bloc has temporarily suspended payments to and through the Palestinian government because it has not met the international community's three conditions of recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accepting past peace agreements.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel expressed ''its regret'' at the decision to grant Odwan a visa.
''Israel believes the way to promote positive change in the Palestinian Authority is to resolutely support the quartet's benchmarks,'' he said. ''Giving recognition to an unreformed terrorist cannot help that process.'' The EU and the United States are part of an international peace quartet, and have increased pressure on Hamas to try to persuade the militant group to recognise Israel and renounce violence.
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 ceasefire.
Reuters VJ VP0300