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France says its had informal contacts with Hamas
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    PARIS — France acknowledged on Monday that it had informal contacts with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization for its campaign of violence against Israel.
    Washington swiftly condemned the move, but French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said such contacts are needed to gauge the humanitarian and political situation in the Middle East. He said other European countries had quietly done likewise, a contention supported by Hamas.
    The opening, however slight, exposed new discord over how to deal with an extremist group that much of the international community has treated as a pariah since it seized control of the Gaza Strip by force last June. Word of the contacts comes after former President Carter met with Hamas leaders in Syria last month.
    It was even more striking because French President Nicolas Sarkozy has embraced Israel since taking office a year ago, in contrast to predecessors who nurtured France’s traditionally strong relations with the Arab world. But experts noted Sarkozy has signaled the need for ‘‘bridges’’ in response to Carter’s contentious visit.
    Speaking on French radio Europe-1, Kouchner insisted the French contacts with Hamas over ‘‘several months’’ did not amount to ‘‘relations’’ or ‘‘negotiations.’’
    He did not delve into the substance of the contacts, but said Hamas has become more ‘‘flexible’’ — even if it still refuses to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.
    These are ‘‘contacts, and nothing else, to inform us about the situation — first on the humanitarian front, and then especially the political one. That’s it,’’ Kouchner told reporters later at the Foreign Ministry.
    ‘‘I think ... we’re not the only ones to have contacts of this type — just to inform ourselves — and particularly in the European Union,’’ he added.
    The U.S. government frowned on Kouchner’s comments and reiterated that the Bush administration feels Hamas should be shunned until it changes its behavior.
    ‘‘We don’t think it is wise or appropriate,’’ State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said ‘‘We don’t believe it is helpful to the process of bringing peace to the region.’’
    Israeli officials said they would seek clarification from Kouchner when he visited Israel later this week as part of a previously planned trip. Sarkozy is scheduled to visit the region next month.
    In Brussels, Belgium, European Union officials insisted the 27-member bloc had no official contact with Hamas — other than when EU aid officials come into contact intermittently with local elected leaders or low-level authorities on projects.
    Western officials noted the Quartet of Middle East mediators — the United States, EU, United Nations and Russia — has demanded Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous peace accords as a condition for any talks with the militant group.
    The French Foreign Ministry sought to play down the remarks by the frank-speaking Kouchner, insisting there was no change in French policy.
    Hamas quickly corroborated the French minister’s report of contacts and it claimed communication with other European countries.
    Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said talks were ‘‘about exploring Hamas’ positions on political issues’’ and were not discussions about opening formal relations. ‘‘It reflects Europe’s awareness that it made a mistake in boycotting Hamas,’’ he said, without identifying any countries.
    A Hamas legislator, Ismail Ridwan, told The Associated Press that there had been ‘‘formal contacts, semi-formal, informal,’’ in Gaza on ways to bring about talks. Hamas has had contact with Norwegians, Italians, Swedes and Russians, he said.
    In a speech Sunday, Hamas’ prime minister in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, said unidentified European delegations had been in Gaza recently to examine the Rafah border crossing and whether it could be reopened.
    Kouchner addressed the issue of contacts with Hamas in response to an interview published Monday in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in which a retired French diplomat said he had met with Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas strongman in Gaza, and with Haniyeh.
    France’s Foreign Ministry said later that the former diplomat, Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, had made the trip on ‘‘an individual basis’’ although the ministry had been informed.
    Aubin de la Messuziere told the newspaper that Hamas leaders said ‘‘they were ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders — which amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel.’’
    ‘‘They said they were ready to stop suicide attacks, and what surprised me is that the Islamist leaders recognize the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas,’’ he said, referring to the moderate Palestinian president and leader of the Fatah movement — Hamas’ main rival.
    France, a leading EU member, has sought to boost its role in the Mideast peace process under Sarkozy. It hosted an international donors conference that raised billions of dollars for the Palestinians in December.
    Associated Press Writers Diaa Hadid in Gaza City and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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