Hamas embarks on a quest for international legitimacy on Friday with an official visit to Russia, marking its first talks with a major power involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. 

But while it deals a blow to US-led efforts to isolate Hamas since it swept Palestinian elections in late January, Russia's mediation is seen by some in the West as a chance to talk the movement into renouncing violence and recognising Israel.

In Israel, the Russian overtures towards Hamas drew denunciations at first. But the Jewish state has adopted a wait-and-see attitude since Moscow emphasised it was sticking to the view of international mediators.

David Welch, the US envoy for the Middle East, said on Thursday that Washington wanted to to make it "enormously difficult" for Hamas to govern and was trying to dissuade
governments from meeting Hamas leaders.

David Welch: US wants to make
it hard for Hamas to govern

"We urge them against contact because in our view, isolation and pressure have to be the words of the moment," Welch said.

But if governments are going to meet Hamas, then they should put pressure on the group to change its ideology, the US says.

Adam Ereli, the US State Department deputy spokesman, said: "Our position is that if you are going to meet with a terrorist group, you should make it clear to them that their way of doing business is unacceptable, that their philosophy is contrary to the norms of the civilized world, and that they
should get with the programme."

Hamas, whose delegation is due to arrive in Moscow early on Friday, regards the visit as a chance to push its position on
the international stage. 

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said on Thursday: "We will listen to the Russian government's vision on the Arab-Israeli conflict and we will clarify our own vision.

"The visit in itself is a declaration of the failure of pressure exerted by the United States on the world to besiege Hamas," he said. "Now Hamas is on the threshold of international legitimacy, thanks to the visit by Hamas leaders to Moscow." 

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 visit in itself is a declaration of the failure of pressure exerted by the United States on the world to besiege Hamas. Now Hamas is on the threshold of international legitimacy ..." 

Sami Abu Zuhri,
Hamas spokesman

"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.