- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

MADRID — Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday invited Hamas leaders to Moscow, saying his country — unlike most of the West — does not consider the winner in the Palestinian elections a terrorist organization.

“Maintaining our contacts with Hamas, we are ready in the near future to invite the Hamas authorities to Moscow to hold talks,” Mr. Putin told a press conference in the Spanish capital, Madrid, where he was on a visit.

Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official, said in Gaza that leaders of the group, whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, “would be delighted” to visit Russia if Mr. Putin tendered a formal invitation.

Hamas, which won a crushing victory over the long-dominant Fatah party in an election on Jan. 25, is considered a terrorist organization by Washington.

Mr. Putin disagreed yesterday.

“We haven’t considered Hamas a terrorist organization. Today, we must recognize that Hamas has reached power in Palestine as a result of legitimate elections and we must respect the choice of the Palestinian people,” he said.

An Israeli government source voiced surprise at Mr. Putin’s comments, calling them a departure from a position taken by a Quartet of international negotiators on Middle East peace, to which Russia belongs along with the United States, European Union and the United Nations.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem that no talks should be held with Hamas until it recognized the Jewish state’s right to exist and “renounced terror.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that the Bush administration has “contacted the Russian government about what their intentions are.”

“If there are any contacts between the Russian government and Hamas, we would expect that they would send that very clear message, both in public and private, that is contained in the Quartet statement,” he said.

At a meeting in London on Jan. 30, Quartet representatives said the Palestinians risked losing international aid if Hamas did not renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas has rejected the demand.

A State Department official said Russia had not revealed Mr. Putin’s plan to invite Hamas leaders at the Quartet meeting.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the talks with Hamas will build on the group’s agreement last month and will send Hamas a clear signal that it must make “responsible decisions.”

“It needs to be stressed that our dialogue with Hamas will run along with contacts which leading regional parties, including Egypt, already have with this organization,” the ministry said.

Russia’s special Middle East envoy, Alexander Kalugin, was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency as saying Russia hoped to bring Hamas “up to international requirements” and draw it into dialogue with Israel.

In Gaza yesterday, Palestinian gunmen abducted an Egyptian military attache, the first kidnapping of a diplomat in the turbulent territory where militants hold sway.

The motive for the abduction of Egyptian diplomat Hussam el-Musli was not clear, and no one had taken responsibility.

Gaza has seen a rash of kidnappings since Israel’s pullout in September, but foreigners seized by militants with grudges against the Palestinian Authority have been released quickly.

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