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Hamas vows to stop violence, Russian says

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MOSCOW — The supreme leader of Hamas has promised that the militant group will end missile attacks and other violence against Israel, Russia's foreign minister said Tuesday.

But Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said separately that the group is not ready to recognize Israel.

"Hamas should use its authority to stop violence, including missile attacks, against Israel," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after his meeting with Mashaal. "We received confirmation that such steps will be taken."

Mashaal's reception in a European capital shows that Hamas is gaining at least tentative support outside the Middle East. The visit reflected the Kremlin's position that negotiations — rather than sanctions — are the best way to deal with Hamas, which is shunned by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist group.

Renouncing violence and recognizing Israel are both key demands of international peace negotiators.

"First of all, Israel has to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and put an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people," Mashaal said. "When Israel does that, the Palestinian people will make their position clear."

Lavrov also had called for international support for the power-sharing arrangement that Hamas and Fatah have worked out and for lifting an international financial aid blockade against the Palestinian Authority.

The Quartet of Mideast peace brokers has said that recognizing Israel is a key condition for resuming aid. Lavrov indicated that Russia's expression of support for the Hamas-Fatah agreement did not mean it was stepping back from the Quartet demands.

"Our advice to Hamas, which today was given to Mashaal, is to continue in the direction of the principles of the international Quartet that include recognition of Israel," he said.

Earlier, at the start of his talks with Mashaal, Lavrov said Russia favors the agreement between Hamas and the Fatah group to share power because it shows "wisdom, reason and responsibility before the Palestinian people."

"We are pushing for all members of the international community to support this process and make it irreversible, including efforts to lift the blockade," Lavrov added.

Millions of dollars in crucial foreign aid were cut off after Hamas, which the European Union, United States and others consider a terrorist group, gained control of the Cabinet and the legislature in January 2006 elections.

Since the power-sharing deal worked out this month in Saudi Arabia, however, there has appeared to be a softening in the stance of some EU countries toward Hamas. French President Jacques Chirac has said he would ask the EU in March to support plans for a unity government.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ended a European tour last week without persuading any country to end crippling economic sanctions based on the power-sharing deal.

A spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticized Lavrov's remarks. "This is not the international community's stand, and it's not the Quartet's stand," Miri Eisin said.

Asked if Lavrov's comments indicated a split in the Quartet position, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Tuesday in Israel that a united response to the Palestinian coalition had not been finalized.

"For the moment, we have to see really what a new national unity government would be like, what would be the program and what would be the actions," Ferrero-Waldner said. "I think it's really the right stance to now wait for that."

Mashaal said after the talks that he and Russian diplomats discussed ways to free frozen Palestinian financial assets in the United States.

He called on the EU and the United Nations to "cooperate with Russia and revise the Quartet's stance" and urged Washington to reconsider its position. "If the United States continues to insist on the blockade of the Palestinian people, that will only foment hatred of the U.S. policy in the region not only among the Palestinians, but all Arabs, all Muslims," he said.

He also said that he was going to visit Tehran as part of his foreign trip.

Russia, which has been clamoring for a greater role in the Middle East, has been more positive about the unity government plan than the United States and the European Union.

"The Russian leadership supported forming such government from the very start," Lavrov said.

Mashaal thanked Russia for "taking brave steps to host us."