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Posted: 2/17/2006 6:20:17 AM EDT

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on Friday Moscow would supply military hardware to the
Palestinian Authority only if
Israel agreed.

Plans to sell the Palestinian Authority 50 armored personnel carriers (APCs) were put on hold since last September.

But Russian Armed Forces chief-of-staff General Yuri Baluyevsky said on Thursday that the plan could be revived if a visit by leaders of the Islamist Hamas group to Moscow planned for early March went well.

"Supplies of military hardware to Palestine can only be carried out with Israel's consent and through its territory," Ivanov said in televised comments.

Last year the Palestinian Authority sought to buy Russian hardware, but no definite deal was reached. Diplomats said Russia had since shelved the idea after Middle East peace brokers told Moscow it could harm efforts to stabilize the area.

On Monday, Interfax news agency quoted a "well-informed source" in Moscow as saying that APCs sales were still on hold after Hamas won the January 25 Palestinian elections. But the source did not mention the helicopters, which are destined for use by the Palestinian presidency.

"It would be short-sighted to say the least to make decisions on supplying APCs to Palestine after the Hamas victory and amid the current situation in the Middle East," the source said. "We are taking a break on the issue for now."

Israel supported the Russian decision.

"We welcome the Russian statement that they are re-evaluating and they expect to continue any such future cooperation also in coordination with us," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Ivanov's remarks were clearly meant to downplay Baluyevsky's suggestions. "The consideration of the issue is at a preliminary stage," the defense minister said.

Russian officials have said the invitation to Hamas leaders was aimed at encouraging the group, branded a terrorist organization by the West, to stick to peace commitments made by the previous Palestinian administration.

They have said Moscow would convey to Hamas the demands of the quartet of Middle East mediators, which also includes the United States,
European Union and the
United Nations, to recognize Israel and stop armed attacks against Israelis.

"We are now in the process of agreeing delegations, which will take part in Moscow talks," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference.

But Russia's envoy in the Middle east was quoted as saying on Friday that Moscow would not press Hamas in any way.

"We are not going to demand anything at the meeting," Interfax quoted Alexander Kalugin as saying. "It's up to them to decide what answers the interests of the Palestinian people, what helps solve problems in Israeli-Palestinian relations."
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