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Egypt says backs Mideast peace conference in Moscow

RIA Novosti

17/02/2009 15:48 CAIRO, February 17 (RIA Novosti) - Egypt says it welcomes a proposed international peace conference on the Middle East in Moscow and is set to contribute to it, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Tuesday.

Moscow plans to host an international peace conference in the first half of 2009 aimed at shoring up a ceasefire in Gaza and persuade Israel to end its blockade of the Palestinian enclave.

"Egypt welcomes the meeting and hopes to contribute to its success," Aboul Gheit told a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Asked if the Moscow conference was in conflict with France's proposal to hold a summit on the Middle East, the minister said details for the French initiative had not been finalized as yet. "Efforts are currently being focused on the ministerial meeting in Moscow," he said.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, launched after a peace conference hosted by then U.S. president George Bush in November 2007, have stalled. Israel launched a major assault on Gaza in December in response to rocket barrages from the Hamas-controlled region.

The assault devastated the densely-populated enclave, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, and left over 1,300 dead pushing the Gaza Strip to the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Two weeks into the latest truce, Israel and Hamas continue to trade fire.

Aboul Gheit said Russia's initiative had the backing of Arab states and the international community in general.

Israel said it has no objections in principle to the initiative, but was concerned about who would participate.

Lavrov told the news conference that Russia had maintained contacts with Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel and most Western countries, to help ensure Palestinian unity. The radical group ousted in June 2007 the internationally recognized Fatah group of President Mahmoud Abbas, which now controls only the West Bank.

"Our contacts with Hamas have not halted, they are continuing. They are aimed as establishing Palestinian unity," Lavrov said.

Egypt is acting as a mediator in the talks between Fatah and Hamas as both sides do not communicate directly. Cairo is to host talks between the two largest parties on February 22.

Over the past few weeks there have been three meetings between Fatah and Hamas moderated by Egypt. The Palestinians have said that the meetings have "broken some ice" between the opposing factions.

On Monday, Lavrov said neither Hamas nor Hezbollah, a Shiite movement based in Lebanon which had an armed conflict with Israel in 2006, would send delegates to the Moscow conference.

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