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Russia's Putin to meet Palestinian leaders
Updated: 2005-04-29 16:17

Russian President Vladimir Putin headed to the West Bank Friday for meetings with the Palestinian government, the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit the Palestinian territories.

In talks with the Israelis a day earlier, Putin offered reassurances about Russian-Syria arms deals and Russian backing for Iran's nuclear program, but the Israelis were unconvinced.

Israeli officials also objected to Russian plans to sell armored personnel carriers to the Palestinians, leaving that deal in doubt on the eve of Putin's West Bank visit.

The Russian leader's brief visit to the city of Ramallah was to include a ceremonial stop at the grave of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Putin arrived in the area promoting a fall Mideast peace conference in Moscow, and Palestinians responded enthusiastically — but the idea dropped off the table during talks in Jerusalem after Israel and the U.S. expressed reservations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, accompanying Putin, said Thursday that Putin did not suggest a summit but a "meeting of experts at the high level. There is nothing unusual about this. Such meetings are held periodically." Lavrov added that Russia would see how it can help the Palestinians with security.

But Russia's promise to supply the Palestinans with the armored vehicles and two helicopters was in doubt, after Israel reportedly expressed fears the weapons could fall into the hands of militants.

In their meetings with Putin, the Palestinians can be expected to repeat their traditional demands — halting settlement construction and the building of a separation barrier along the West Bank, and implementation of the "road map" peace plan leading to creation of a Palestinian state.

One of Putin's goals is to restore Russia as a player in Middle East diplomacy. Russia is one of the four co-sponsors of the so-called "road map" to peace, along with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

President Bush formally presented the plan in June 2003, but it stalled after neither side carried out its initial requirements. Israel was to halt all settlement construction and remove unauthorized outposts, while the Palestinians were to dismantle violent groups.

With Russia's Mideast peace conference a dead letter, Putin's talks in Israel concentrated on other issues — Iran, Syria and anti-Semitism.

Putin scored points with Israeli leaders by warning Iran not to seek nuclear weapons.

"It's necessary for our Iranian partners to reject the creation of nuclear cycle technology," he said, referring to enriching uranium, "and not to hinder placing all its nuclear programs under complete international control," Putin said.

The statement by Putin, whose country is building a nuclear power plant in Iran, was perhaps his strongest call for Tehran to convince the world it does not want nuclear weapons.

Putin also defended a deal to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Israel's foe Syria, a plan that has clouded improving Russian-Israeli relations and has loomed over the historic visit.

The visit to Israel was also a first for a Kremlin leader. In a day packed with symbolism, Putin strongly condemned anti-Semitism amid concern among Israeli officials about a rise of the phenomena in Russia. He presented a sculpture recalling the victims of the Nazi Holocaust as a gift from the Russian people.

In the afternoon, he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which recently dedicated a new museum complex. His head covered with a traditional Jewish skullcap, he laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance, where the ashes of Jews killed by the Nazis are buried.

He wrote in the guest book, "We are deeply mournful of all the victims of the Holocaust. This type of tragedy must never happen again."

Putin has stressed the Soviet role in the Nazi defeat as he prepares to host world leaders for May 9 celebrations of the Allied victory in Europe. But he has glossed over the persecution of Jews and others under Soviet leader Josef Stalin after the war, and Kremlin critics say his government has not done enough to combat the xenophobia and anti-Semitism he condemns.

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