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France acknowledges informal contacts with Hamas

The U.S. condemned the move, saying the group should be shunned as a terrorist organization.

PARIS - France acknowledged yesterday that it has had informal contacts with Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group that the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization for its campaign of violence against Israel.

Washington condemned the move, but French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said such contacts were 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 Jimmy 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 had signaled the need for "bridges" in response to Carter's 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 had 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 believes Hamas should be shunned until it changed 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.

Hamas corroborated the French 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.