A delegation from the Palestinian group Hamas has arrived in Moscow for high-level talks. It is the first time that a member of the so-called quartet of Middle East peace negotiators will sit down for formal discussions with Hamas. On arrival the group's exiled political leader Khaled Meshaal accused Israel of disregarding the "roadmap" peace plan. Israel has criticised Russia for dealing with what Israel regards as a "terrorist" organisation. But speaking to reporters at an airport near Moscow, Mr Meshaal said Israel was the chief problem. "They [Israel] have practically refused the roadmap," he said. "The main problem is the occupation of Palestine."
President Vladimir Putin invited the group to Moscow following its surprise victory in January's Palestinian elections, though he is not expected to meet the delegation himself. While the rest of the Middle East Quartet - the US, UN and EU - grapples over the imminent prospect of a Palestinian government run by Hamas, Russia has broken ranks to open a dialogue with the group, she says. Mr Meshaal and other senior Hamas political figures will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other senior diplomats during their two days of talks.
Russia will tell Hamas that it must moderate its policy by renouncing violence and adhering to the roadmap to peace and other previous agreements between the two sides, our correspondent says. This would involve a de facto recognition of Israel's right to exist, something Hamas has always refused to give.
The Israeli government has been angered by the Russian initiative. One minister called it "a stab in the back", and Europe and the US still consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.
South African invite
Pretoria has also invited the Hamas leadership to meet. Aziz Pahad, South African deputy foreign minister, on Thursday said the government had confirmed a proposed meeting with the Hamas leadership, although details were yet to be arranged. "The proposed meeting will take place within the context of ongoing efforts by South Africa ... to share our experiences on the transition from apartheid to democracy with both the Palestinians and the Israelis," Pahad said in a statement.
"With the election of Hamas by the majority of Palestinians during their recent parliamentary elections, South Africa is of the view that we need to engage with the Hamas leadership as part of international efforts to help bring about peace and stability in the Middle East." South Africa, which under apartheid was a close ally of Israel, has sought to become a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians since white rule gave way to multi-racial democracy in 1994.
Returning US aid
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has refunded $30 million in US aid, meeting Washington's demand to keep it out of the hands of the new Hamas-led government. Welch said on Thursday the money was returned a day earlier and the Palestinian Authority had promised to give back a further $20 million before Hamas took over.
A senior State Department official said the $50 million would probably be "reprogrammed" for humanitarian aid to Palestinians but Congress would have to agree to that.
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