Hamas delegation arrives in Moscow

Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Meshaal, called for the removal of an international aid embargo on the Palestinians and thanked Russia for its support on the issue, Russian news agencies reported Monday.

Meshaal, visiting Moscow, also blamed Israel for the lack of Mideast peace talks and urged international peace brokers to put pressure on Israel, RIA-Novosti, Interfax and ITAR-Tass reported.

Meshaal's visit, the second by a senior Hamas delegation since the militant group came to power following Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, followed unsuccessful Palestinian efforts to convince the international community to end the freeze on direct financial aid to the Palestinian government.

Before a meeting last week of the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hoped the embargo could be lifted.

"We value the position of Russia in relation to removing the blockade, which is causing the Palestinian people to suffer," RIA-Novosti quoted Mashaal as saying after arriving in Moscow.

Meshaal said the recent power-sharing deal between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' moderate Fatah should mean an end to the embargo, ITAR-Tass reported. "These agreements are a very important step that should end the embargo," the agency quoted him as saying.

Millions of dollars in crucial foreign aid was cut off after Hamas, which the EU, the U.S. and others consider a terrorist group, gained control of the Cabinet and the legislature last year.

The European Union and the United States have said they will not make a decision on whether to restore aid until a new Palestinian unity government is in place. The EU has said the funds will only be paid if the new government is committed to peace with Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week reiterated the Quartet's demand that any new Palestinian government recognize Israel, something Hamas has refused to do.

The power-sharing deal has also stymied Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, since Israel has ruled out talks on a final peace deal with Abbas if he goes ahead with plans for a coalition with Hamas.

Meshaal, Hamas' exiled leader, blamed Israel for the impasse and urged the Quartet to use its influence.

"Israel is occupying Palestinian lands, the people of Palestine are living without a state. The Quartet should talk to Israel, not to us," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying.

Meshaal was part of a high-level Hamas delegation that visited Moscow in March 2006. The trip irked Israel, which has sought to keep the militant Islamic group isolated. The visit was also widely seen as a bid by President Vladimir Putin, who invited the Hamas leaders, to activate Russia's role in the Middle East peace process, the AP reports.

Russian officials contend that it is more effective to seek influence through cooperation, but the visit last year brought no noticeable softening of Hamas' radical stance toward Israel.

During Meshaal's current visit, Russia planned to continue its efforts "toward stabilizing the situation in the Palestinian territories and overcoming the inter-Palestinian discord," the Russian Foreign Ministry said last week. It said Russia also wanted to help in the forming of a Palestinian national unity government "that takes into consideration the well-known criteria of the Quartet, and also the resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue."

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the trip's aim was to gain support for the Hamas-Fatah power-sharing deal, reached earlier this month during talks in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

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