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Russia: Hamas Retains Hard Line During Moscow Visit --> Palestinian Hamas leaders Khalid Mish'al (right), Musa Abu Marzuk (center), and Muhammad Nazal (left) attend a news conference with their bodyguards (standing behind) in Moscow today (epa) Russian officials and leaders of the radical Palestinian movement Hamas held talks in Moscow on March 3, marking the militant group’s highest-level foreign visit yet. As expected, Russia called on Hamas to lay down its arms and soften its policies. But Hamas did not show signs of willingness to revise its hardline stance towards Israel.

MOSCOW, March 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Hamas leaders traveled to Moscow today for three days of talks, which the radical Islamic movement hopes will raise its international standing.

The six-member delegation, led by the movement’s top leader, Khalid Mish'al, met first with Aleksandr Saltanov, a deputy Russian foreign minister, before holding talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov called on Hamas to respect the demands made by international mediators and abide by prior peace deals with the Jewish state.

"We hope that Hamas as the leading political force in the Palestinian National Assembly and the government that will be formed by the Assembly will make its contribution in moving ahead on that path and in the full and comprehensive implementation of the existing agreements," he said.

Controversial Moscow Invitation

The Middle East Quartet of international mediators -- which comprises Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations -- has long urged Hamas to renounce violence, recognize the state of Israel, and respect all prior Israeli- Palestinian agreements.

The Islamic movement, which has claimed scores of bloody suicide bombings against Israelis, is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe -- but not by Russia.

"The issue of recognition is a done issue. We are not going to recognize Israel." Khalid Mish'al

Russian President Vladimir Putin nonetheless stunned the other Quartet members when he announced in January that he would invite Hamas leaders for talks in Moscow. Putin's overture followed the group's landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative elections.

Over the past few days, Russian officials have been trying to ease international concerns raised by the Hamas talks, by insisting that the purpose of the invitation was to urge Hamas to align itself with the recommendations laid down by the Quartet.

Lavrov, however, urged patience on Friday, saying that Russia did not, in his words, “expect that Hamas will do all this and change itself overnight."

Hamas Lays Out Peace Terms

Upon arrival in Moscow, Mish'al immediately dampened hopes that Hamas would yield to international demand to recognize the state of Israel.

"The issue of recognition is a done issue. We are not going to recognize Israel," he told a crowd of reporters at the airport.

Speaking at a news conference tonight, Mish'al said Hamas would not declare peace until the Jewish state completely pulled out of Palestinian territory.

“I want to state here in Moscow," he said, "that if Israel officially declares its readiness and its adherence to the principal[s]: of withdrawing from all the territories occupied since 1967; of letting Palestinian refugees return; of ending the settling; of breaking down the dividing wall; and of freeing all the arrested and the prisoners; then our movement will take serious steps towards securing peace."

He added that the ball was now in Israel’s court to advance a peace settlement.

The Hamas leader, however, voiced resistance to entering talks with Israel.

"Yasser Arafat and Israel sat at the negotiating table for more than 10 years,” he told the news conference. “The result was that Israel killed Arafat. Do you want Hamas to be killed too?"

Assurances To Palestinian Funders

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it had managed to extract a pledge from Hamas to continue to respect a ceasefire agreed last year, on condition that Israel does not use force.

Putin’s invitation to Hamas has riled Israel and its close ally the United States.

Israeli officials have described Putin's invitation to Hamas as “a stab in the back,” and the United States said on March 2 it would continued to isolate Hamas financially.

Mish’al on Friday had a special message to any financial backers of the Palestinian administration.

“The first guarantee is that the financial aid will go not to Hamas but to the good of the Palestinian people and will in no way be connected to Hamas’s budget. The second guarantee is that this aid will be used for the Palestinian people, to build the life of the Palestinian people, the everyday lives of the Palestinians, and will not be used in corrupted ways.”

Mish’al also agreed to allow international officials to monitor their budget funding, and called on the world not to punish Palestinians financially for what he praised as a “democratic election.”

Mish'al and his delegation are due to hold talks with Russian parliament leaders and other officials in their remaining two days in Moscow.

RFE/RL Russia Report

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