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Europe

New Hamas Cabinet, Belarus Poll to Top EU Agenda

European foreign ministers are holding talks on Monday dominated by concern over the new Hamas-led Palestinian cabinet and President Alexander Lukashenko's sweeping return to power in Belarus.

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The EU is concerned with the situation in Belarus

The ministers, meeting on Monday morning in Brussels, will ponder a diplomatic worst-case scenario in the Palestinian territories after Hamas, blacklisted in the EU as a terrorist group, submitted a cabinet list full of its members.

The Union is by far the biggest aid donor to the impoverished Palestinian territories and has made future help conditional on the cabinet agreeing to recognize Israel, forswear violence and accept previously-reached accords.

But the militant Islamic group, which stunningly won legislative elections in January, has shown little sign that it will agree to any, let alone all, of those preconditions.

Its stance has left the EU, which sends around 500 million euros ($609 million) a year to the territories, with a huge dilemma at a desperate time for many Palestinians.

Big problems ahead

Wahlen in Palästina Hamas Reaktionen

Hamas won an outright majority of parliamentary seats in the Palestinian elections

After the Hamas victory, Israel imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, including withholding some 50 million euros a month in tax and customs duties.

The World Bank says the economy could implode and unemployment double to some 40 percent. On Sunday, the United Nations warned that the Gaza Strip is dangerously short of food and faces a humanitarian crisis.

"It is a very tricky situation," said an EU official with intimate knowledge of the region. "But it is simply not possible for us to fund a government who refuses Israel's right to exist."

A sweeping victory

Wahlen in Weißrussland - Wahllokal

The EU is expecting an OSCE report about the Belarus elections

On Belarus, meanwhile, the ministers will discuss Lukashenko's return to office -- with more than 80 percent of Sunday's vote according to official preliminary results -- amid opposition calls to cancel the poll.

Ahead of the meeting, EU officials said the ministers would await a report from monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) before issuing any reaction.

The Union already has sanctions in place against Belarus officials, and while no new measures will be announced at the talks, they could come up when EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

Lukashenko's regime, accused in the West of stifling independent media, arresting activists and manipulating the polls, warned before the vote that it would "break the neck immediately -- like a duckling's" -- of any disorder.

Business as usual

Javier Solana

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana

Also on the agenda will be the EU's plans to send troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help with key elections in June.

The ministers will hear a report from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana following his visit to Kinshasa, but it is unclear whether they can firm up their plans given widespread reluctance to lead the operation.

Apart from preparing for the summit, the ministers will also discuss Iran, Iraq and Sudan, and warn Serbia it must fully cooperate with the UN war crimes court if it wants to avoid disruption to its rapprochement talks with the EU.

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