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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Will Invite Hamas Leaders to Moscow

ReutersPutin adjusting his earphone during a news conference Thursday in Madrid.
MADRID -- President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that he would invite Hamas leaders to Moscow, opening a crack in a wall of U.S.-led opposition to dealing with the Palestinian election winner until it recognized Israel.

Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas official, said in Gaza that leaders of the group, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, "would be delighted" to visit if Putin tendered a formal invitation.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem that there should be no talks with Hamas until it recognized the Jewish state's right to exist, "renounced terror" and accepted the Middle East peace process.

"Maintaining our contacts with Hamas, we are ready in the near future to invite the Hamas authorities to Moscow to hold talks," Putin said at a joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Madrid, where he was wrapping up a two-day visit.

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, won a crushing victory over the long-dominant Fatah group in an election on Jan. 25.

Speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Putin said: "We haven't considered Hamas a terrorist organization. Today we must recognize that Hamas has reached power in Palestine as a result of legitimate elections, and we must respect the choice of the Palestinian people."

An Israeli government source voiced surprise at Putin's comments, calling them a departure from a position taken by the so-called quartet of Middle East mediators to which Russia belongs along with the United States, European Union and United Nations. "[Russia] agreed to the quartet's statements, so people in Jerusalem are raising an eyebrow -- what's going on here?" the source said.

Russia's special Middle East envoy, Alexander Kalugin, said later Thursday that Russia hoped to bring Hamas "up to international requirements" and draw it into dialogue with Israel.

The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, David Welch, declined to comment directly on Putin's planned invitation, but he noted Russia had agreed to demand that the group recognize Israel, disarm and renounce violence.

Zapatero said at the news conference that he supported Russia's peace initiatives in the Middle East.

He also said Russia must play a decisive role in finding an answer to the international community's standoff with Iran over that country's nuclear ambitions, but the he gave no details of what role he hoped Putin would play.

Putin lamented that Russian-Spanish trade stood at only $3.7 billion, compared with $35 billion with Germany.

Putin and Zapatero called for boosting economic and investment ties between the countries, and signed a number of cooperation agreements in the spheres of agriculture, sport, anti-drug trafficking, tourism and space exploration. The leaders also signed a joint statement on fighting terrorism, stressing that any anti-terrorism measures should observe human rights and adhere to international law.

On Wednesday evening, Putin was feted by with King Juan Carlos with a gala dinner, but the monarch used a speech at the event to urge Putin to ensure his country remained a reliable energy supplier.

Putin sought to dispel doubts, saying Russian energy workers were among "the most reliable partners of the European Union."

(Reuters, AP)