JERUSALEM – Hamas militants confirmed Saturday they plan to travel to Moscow this month for talks with President Vladimir Putin, a trip that has enraged Israeli leaders, who fear the international community's resolve to shun the Islamic group is weakening.
Hamas said it does not expect Russia to impose any conditions on the group, despite U.S. calls for Moscow to send a clear message that Hamas halt attacks on Israel and recognize the Jewish state.
"We are going to present our positions ... about the political developments and issues related to the rights of our people," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "Russia will listen to Hamas and Hamas will listen to Russia."
Also Saturday, a shadowy Palestinian militant group released an Egyptian diplomat who was kidnapped earlier in the week, while Israeli aircraft pounded suspected rocket-launching targets in northern Gaza. No injuries were reported in the attacks.
Putin extended the invitation to Hamas on Thursday following its sweeping victory in last month's Palestinian legislative elections. The militant group, which remains committed to Israel's destruction and has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, is poised to form a new Palestinian government in the coming weeks.
Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will remain in power, his Fatah Party will now be a minority in the Palestinian legislature.
Israel has urged the world to isolate the militants until they change their violent ways.
The United States also reacted coolly to the Russian invitation, although officials conceded there is nothing they can do to stop the meeting. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday urged Russia to send a strong message to Hamas to halt its violence.
Russia and the United States, along with the European Union and United Nations, make up the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace negotiators. The Quartet, the main backer of the "road map" peace plan, has called on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Israeli Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit on Friday accused Putin of "stabbing Israel in the back." Further upsetting Israel, France has come out in support of Russia.
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry defended Putin's decision, saying a dialogue with Hamas must be started immediately to get the Mideast peace process back on track.
"The Russian side is convinced that in the interests of guaranteeing prospects for restoring the process of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement on the basis of the 'road map,' it is necessary not to drag out the beginning of talks with Hamas," the ministry said.
Although an official date for the visit has not been set, Abu Zuhri said Saturday he expects it to take place later this month. Russian Mideast envoy Alexander Kalugin also said the visit could take place by the end of the month, the Russian news agency Interfax reported Saturday.
Egypt, a key ally of the Palestinians, has been trying to broker the formation of a new Palestinian government following Hamas' election victory.
The Egyptian diplomat's abduction, carried out in daylight, underscored the lawlessness plaguing Gaza in the wake of Israel's withdrawal from the area in September.
Officials said Hussam Almousaly, Egypt's military attache to the Palestinian Authority, was unharmed.
A previously unknown group calling itself the "Al Ahrar Brigades" — Arabic for "the liberated people" — claimed responsibility Friday, demanding the release of dozens of Palestinian criminals held in Egyptian jails.
Suleiman Awad, a spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said it remained unclear who was behind the kidnapping. All major Palestinian militant groups, including those who have carried out previous kidnappings, condemned the abduction.
"Despite the happy ending of the release of the Egyptian diplomat, there are people who are asking what are the reasons behind such incidents," Awad said Saturday.