Russia is inviting leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas to Moscow. The U.S. State Department reacted coolly to the move.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he would invite Hamas leaders to the Kremlin for talks that could focus on persuading the Palestinian group to renounce violence. During a visit to Madrid, Spain, he pointed out that Russia does not share the view widely held in the West that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
A Hamas leader was later quoted as saying he would be delighted to accept the invitation.
Asked about the invitation, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Andrey Denisov said it was merely a recognition of Hamas's surprise election victory last month.
"The Hamas victory in Palestine is a reality," said Denisov. "It is what was given to us, and we have to live with it. Of course that is a very controversial event. We know and are fully aware that Hamas is acknowledged as a terrorist organization by a number of countries including the United States and Israel, but as far as Russia, it is not."
A State Department spokesman in Washington reacted cautiously to the Russian move. Spokesman Sean Mc Cormack was quoted as saying the United States was asking for clarification from Moscow as to what their intentions are, but he carefully avoided criticizing the Putin invitation.
Ambassador Denisov told a news conference Russia is hopeful that the talks can be useful in persuading Hamas to renounce violence and recognizing Israel's right to exist. "If there are planned contacts with Hamas persons, it is quite clear and it is absolutely true that key items of the agenda of such talks will be prevention and complete stop of any terrorist activities," said Denisov. "First, and the second, facing realities and the recognition of Israel as an independent state and neighbor and political partner."
Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet attempting to broker a Middle East peace deal, along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Thursday called on Hamas's leaders to heed a Quartet statement issued last week demanding a clean break with terrorism and acceptance of the two-state solution envisioned in the Quartet's road map for peace.
"I urge Hamas to listen to the appeals, not just from the Quartet, but from other governments in the region, asking it to transform itself into a political party," said the secretary-general. "We must also understand that this is not the first time that an armed movement has transformed itself into a political party. There are lots of examples around the world, and I urge Hamas to go the same route.
A U.S. official, however, expressed skepticism that Hamas could, or would, change. Undersecretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch was quoted Thursday as saying, "It doesn't seem that you can push a pause button on terror and say, 'Today I won't do it but perhaps tomorrow I will'. "
Speaking at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, Welch said the burden is on Hamas to deliver to the Palestinian people a better future. "How they go about it," he said, "is their decision".