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Hamas 'ready to change ways'

MOSCOW: Hamas yesterday admitted it had to "change its manners" after winning Palestinian elections but showed no sign of compromise with Israel as it wrapped up a landmark trip to Russia.

The group also shrugged off a call from Osama Bin Laden's deputy in the Al Qaeda terrorist network to keep fighting the Jewish state as just one "opinion" among many.

The comments came as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and other top Hamas members finished their trip to Russia, the group's first formal contact with a major power, with a tour of the Kremlin and a visit with Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who called for talks with Israel.

After three days of insisting that the next move in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was up to Israel, Hamas leaders sought to take the edge off their uncompromising rhetoric while rebuffing calls to recognise Israel and renounce violence.

"We don't say 'no' to everything," senior Hamas official Mohammed Nazzal said.

"We know that we are in a new phase, a new stage" following Hamas' shock victory in the January 25 Palestinian elections, he said.

"Hamas must change its manners. We know that very well. But what we are saying is that we want a response from the Israelis. If you want Hamas to change its policies, you must also request that the Israelis change their policies."

Hamas officials described their visit to Russia as a "breakthrough" they hoped would help the group -- listed as a "terrorist organisation" by Israel, the United States and Europe - establish legitimacy on the world stage.

"This visit will encourage many countries to contact Hamas and invite Hamas to their countries," Nazzal said.

The Moscow visit was made at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who caught the other three members of the international Middle East "quartet" of mediators - the United States, the European Union and the United Nations - by surprise.

The high point of the trip was a meeting on Friday between the Hamas team and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who made clear that its purpose had been to convey the quartet's expectations of Hamas.

The quartet is insisting that Hamas renounce violence, recognise Israel and adhere to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad urged Hamas not to recognise Israel unless Palestinians' rights are restored, state media said yesterday.

"Recognising Israel is linked to the restitution of Palestinians' rights," Assad was quoting as saying by the Sana news agency during a speech on Saturday.

"There should not be recognition of Israel for free, as if it were a gift for Israel, so that the West is satisfied with us," Assad said.



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