The leader of Hamas said Monday he sees "no prospects" for a Mideast peace settlement, a stand that could reduce Russia's chances of holding a Middle East peace conference that includes the Palestinian militant group.
"In the nearest future we see no prospects of peace settlement in the region, in Syria and Lebanon," Mashaal said.
He spoke after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and his statement leaves in doubt Moscow's repeatedly stated hope of hosting a Mideast peace conference and to involve Hamas, despite strong opposition from Israel and the US.
Mashaal, however, praised Moscow's position to promote his group's stance in relations with Israel. "It's enough that Moscow tells the world that Hamas is a movement of freedom fighters, not a terrorist group," he told journalists.
The US and the European Union list Hamas as a terrorist group.
Russia has repeatedly called for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip that was imposed by Israel after Hamas wrested control there in June 2007 following its victory in parliamentary elections.
The takeover prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity, with the international community lining up behind Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the West Bank-based government of moderates he has installed.
'We'll avenge al-Mabhouh's death'
Russia is part of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace brokers that also includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. The Quartet's principles include recognition of Israel, a renunciation of violence, and adherence to previous Palestinian agreements.
Mashaal said that during his talks with Russian officials he did not discuss plans to include Hamas in a peace conference.
He said the visit was his third trip to Moscow since 2006, and he expressed hope that Moscow's mediation will boost the renewal of peace talks.
The Kremlin irked Israel and Western nations by inviting Mashaal to Russia, and observers said the talks were part of an effort by Moscow to regain the clout and influence it enjoyed in the Middle East during the Soviet era.
Mashaal, however, downplayed Moscow's political role in the talks.
"We appreciate any role that Russia and other countries could play in the Mideast peace process, but only Egypt has the real capability to settle the problem," he said.
Cairo has been trying to broker a deal to reconcile Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement and push them toward a power-sharing agreement.
Addressing the negotiations for the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, Mashaal said they are at a stalemate because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarted the efforts of the German mediator.
According to the Hamas leader, Mashaal relayed an offer for a prisoner exchange to Hamas, but later withdrew it in order to "extort" the Islamist group. Mashaal stressed that Hamas would not release Shalit unless Israel meets its demands.
Israel has agreed to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but has so far refused to free a few prominent prisoners without a guarantee that they would be deported to Gaza or abroad.
Mashaal also vowed to avenge the recent killing of senior Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. The Islamist group claims Mossad was behind the assassination.