Hamas delegation talks with Russian officials in Moscow

A Hamas delegation arrived in Moscow on Friday for three days of talks aimed at denting the militant Palestinian group's international isolation. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was scheduled to receive Hamas' exiled political leader, Khaled Mashaal, in what will be Hamas' highest-profile foreign visit. The Hamas delegation is set to have talks with Lavrov's deputy, Alexander Saltanov, as well as Russian lawmakers, and meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II.

Russia 's invitation, extended by President Vladimir Putin, was the first crack in an international front against the group, considered a terror organization by Israel , the European Union and United States . Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers to explode in Israel and does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East . Russia says it will insist that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel 's right to exist.

"Our trip to Moscow opens new prospects for peace in the Middle East ," Mashaal said in an interview Thursday with NTV television in Damascus , Syria . "Our people want simple things: to be free and to have sovereignty. All this is impossible without an end to the occupation," said Mashaal. He declined to comment on the question of recognizing Israel .

After arriving in Moscow , Mashaal accused Israel of blocking the Mideast peace process and said that Israeli "occupation" of the Palestinian lands will top the agenda in Moscow talks, the Russian news agencies reported. "We expect an exchange of opinions to take place and hope that nobody will put forward any conditions," Mashaal said, according to Interfax.

Russia 's special Middle East envoy, Alexander Kalugin, said the aim of the talks was not to dictate conditions to Hamas but to use persuasion. "We're not going to put forward demands. We'll seek to convince them that now is the time to take responsible decisions. If you come to power and form a government, you must understand you are assuming a great responsibility," said Kalugin in an interview with NTV.

Russian analysts were skeptical of Moscow 's ability to persuade Hamas. They predicted that the talks, being led Friday and Saturday by Mashaal and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, would lead nowhere. "Hamas won't listen to Russia because Moscow has no real levers of influence over them," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the foreign policy magazine Russia in Global Affairs. "This is not the time of the Soviet Union , when we had real clout in the region."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invitation to Hamas last month was the latest bid by Moscow to invigorate its role in Middle East peacemaking. Moscow , which was a major player in the Middle East during the Soviet period when it provided aid to several Arab countries, belongs to the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators alongside the United States , the European Union and United Nations.

Hamas' election victory last month prompted threats from the U.S. and EU to cut off US$1 billion ( Ђ 830 million) in aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas which is responsible for scores of suicide attacks and is branded a terrorist organization by many Western nations recognizes Israel and renounces violence. A Hamas representative, Osama Hamdan, told ITAR-Tass in Beirut that the movement is grateful for Russia 's political and moral support, "but it would welcome a discussion of possible economic cooperation too", reports the AP.

N.U.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team