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Russian official: Hamas may halt attacks

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Hamas' supreme leader Khaled Mashaal, left, shake hands prior their talks in Moscow Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that Russia will work for international support of the Palestinian Authority power-sharing arrangement and for the lifting of the crippling international aid blockade. (AP Photo/ Pool)

MOSCOW --Hamas has pledged to end missile attacks and violence against Israel, Russia's foreign minister said Tuesday, but the radical Palestinian group's spiritual leader struck a less conciliatory note, saying it was not ready to recognize Israel.

With Russia markedly increasing its efforts in Middle East peacemaking, Khaled Mashaal traveled to Moscow for the second time in a year -- amid deep Israeli consternation -- in a visit that reflected the Kremlin's position that negotiations, rather than sanctions, are the best way to deal with Hamas.

His reception shows that Hamas is gaining at least tentative support outside the Middle East.

Russia has been more positive than Washington and the European Union about the recent power-sharing arrangement between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement. And in remarks before his morning meeting with Mashaal, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for international support for the arrangement and for lifting the financial aid blockade of the Palestinian Authority.

"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.

He indicated that Russia's support for the power-sharing deal did not mean it was stepping back from the demands of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers. The four-way group, which Russia is a part of, has said recognizing Israel is a key condition for resuming aid, along with renouncing violence.

"The advice to Hamas, which was given today to Mashaal, is to continue in the direction of the principles of the international Quartet, which includes the recognition of Israel. However, at the same time, we think that the progress that was achieved with the participation of Saudi Arabia should already now be rewarded," he said.

"It's time to move away from such positions as 'literally now or never,'" he said.

Lavrov called Mashaal's meetings "productive" and he said Mashaal had given assurances that Hamas would halt the missile attacks and other continuing violence toward Israel.

"We think that Israel must refrain from the use of force on the Palestinians territory and of course Hamas must use all the authority it has on the Palestinian territories to stop the firing of Kassam missiles at Israel," Lavrov told a news conference after meeting Mashaal.

"We have received confirmation that such steps will be taken," he said.

At a separate news conference, however, Mashaal struck a less-conciliatory tone, saying the group was not ready to recognize Israel.

"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 asked about the recognition issue. "When Israel does that, the Palestinian people will make their position clear."

Millions of dollars in crucial foreign aid were cut off after Hamas -- considered a terrorist group by the European Union, the United States and others -- scored a significant victory in last year's parliamentary 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 at a summit in March to support plans for a unity government.

In Israel, Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticized Lavrov's remarks: "This is not the international community's stand and it's not the Quartet's stand."

Asked if Lavrov's comments indicated a split in the Quartet position, the EU's external relations commissioner said 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," Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Tuesday in Israel. "I think it's really the right stance to now wait for that."

Mashaal told reporters in Moscow after that the EU and the United Nations should "cooperate with Russia and revise the Quartet's stance" and he said Washington's refusal to reconsider its position would "foment hatred of the U.S. policy in the region not only among the Palestinians, but all Arabs, all Muslims."

Mashaal also assailed Israel for failing to release Palestinian prisoners -- the Palestinian condition for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Hamas leader was part of a delegation that visited Moscow in March 2006. The trip irked Israel, which has sought to keep the militant Islamic group isolated.

"We highly value Russia's position, which is unique and encouraging for us," he said.

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Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

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