The Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement on Thursday said: "We have reached an agreement in principle about the arrival in early March of a delegation of the Hamas leadership to Moscow."

The group's victory in recent parliamentary elections has prompted threats from the US and European Union, which threaten to cut off massive aid to the Palestinians unless Hamas - responsible for scores of suicide attacks and designated a terrorist organisation by many Western nations -recognises Israel and renounces violence.

Russia, with backing from France, broke the united Western front on Hamas and invited its leaders to Moscow for talks aimed at persuading the resistance group to moderate its stance.

The invitation, announced at a news conference by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was the latest bid by Moscow to invigorate its role in the Middle East peacemaking after years of taking a back seat to the US.

Russian influence

A Western diplomat in Moscow said on Thursday that Russia was trying to use its distinctive position in the so-called Quartet of Middle-East peace negotiators  - not having designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation - to make headway with the group.

"We have reached an agreement in principle about the arrival in early March of a delegation of the Hamas leadership"

Russian Foreign Ministry statement

Similarly, Russia is using its open channels with Iran to try to negotiate a resolution to the crisis over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons programme.

Russian officials have promised to demand that Hamas recognise the state of Israel and abandon the use of violence.

But the diplomat said the talks were not expected to significantly affect Middle East peacemaking.

"In an ideal world, you'd see a 180-degree turn," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "I don't think anyone expects that."

The other members of the Quartet are the UN, the EU and the US.

Mediating role

Turkey, a country with close ties to both Israel and the Palestinians, also has been seeking to play a mediating role.

Khaled Mashaal, Hamas's exiled political leader, was in Ankara on Thursday for talks where Turkish officials urged the group to renounce violence.

Meanwhile, a top military officer said on Thursday that Russia could decide on weapons deliveries to the Palestinians after the talks with Hamas leaders, the Interfax news agency reported.

Putin is trying to reinvigorate its
role in Middle East peacemaking

"This decision must be made with the new Palestinian leadership," the army's chief of the general staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, was quoted as saying.

He said that two helicopters expected to be delivered to the Palestinians would be unarmed and were intended for transporting the territory's leaders.

"Armoured equipment is also intended for stabilising the situation," Interfax quoted Baluyevsky as saying.

The Palestinian Authority plans to buy two Mi-17 transport helicopters and 50 armoured personnel carriers, Interfax said.

Haniyeh denial

In other news,
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh denied on Thursday that he had been nominated as Palestinian prime minister.

"Hamas is still continuing its internal consultations to determine who will be asked to head the coming government," he told Reuters after a senior Hamas official said the movement's newly elected Hamas legislators had chosen him.

"Such an important position requires consultations between leaders in the (Palestinian) territories, in prisons and in exile. Nothing official has been reached so far, and when a decision is made, it will be published," Haniyeh said.