Solana Denies Direct Contact With Hamas

BRUSSELS -- European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana denied Thursday having had direct contact with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, hours after he said just that in a BBC interview.

Solana's office issued a statement saying, "At no time Dr. Solana wished to imply that direct contacts between himself and Hamas had taken place," since the Islamic movement was put on the EU's list of banned terrorist organizations.

Solana earlier told BBC Radio: "I have had direct contact with Hamas but not in the last few days. Those meetings were not long. They were just to pass a clear message of where the international community was."

That prompted Israel to accuse the EU of double standards and drew veiled criticism from Britain, triggering a statement from Solana's office it said was meant to clarify his remarks.

"Any mention of contacts or meetings with Hamas referred to soundings and impressions conveyed to him but gathered by governments and other parties on the ground," his spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, said in the statement.

"At no time did the High Representative nor his office hold direct contacts with Hamas or any other organization appearing on the EU terrorist list."

The 25-nation bloc put Hamas on its blacklist last year after the Islamic movement rejected repeated calls by the EU to end suicide bombings in Israel and declare a cease-fire.

"We see an inconsistency in the European Union having formally declared Hamas a terrorist organization and then going ahead and holding a meeting with representatives of that group," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking to the BBC from Jerusalem, said Britain's policy was not to talk to Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction.

A senior Israeli government official, speaking to reporters accompanying Straw, said the Jewish state was counting on London to rein in Solana.

"Britain will have to inject a dose of realism into the zeal of European special envoy Javier Solana," the official said.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said Islamic militants posed a threat to Europe as well as to Israel.

Israel's leaders should take up a Syrian offer to renew peace talks, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said in remarks published Thursday in Jerusalem, rejecting assertions by Israeli officials that the offer is not significant, The Associated Press reported.

UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is ready to resume peace talks with Israel "without conditions," but Israeli officials played down the statement, saying it was meaningless without Syria taking action against militant groups Israel says it assists.

"In my opinion it is important and worthwhile to thoroughly check out the intentions of Bashar Assad, if he really wants to make peace with us," Katsav told the daily Maariv.