Putin seeks to bolster Russia's role in visit to Egypt

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday headed for a second session of talks with his Egyptian counterpart on the final day of a landmark visit to Egypt aimed at reviving Moscow's influence in the region.

Putin, the first Russian or Soviet leader to make an official state visit to Egypt in 40 years, discussed the Israeli-Palestinian dispute with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak when the two men met Tuesday evening after Putin's arrival.

The Russian president, leader of one of the four powers backing the "road map" plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, will head to Israel late Wednesday.

A spokesman for Mubarak said after the first round of talks that the two leaders shared a similar approach to the Middle East peace process.

Russian officials say the discussions will also cover Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and proposals to reform the United Nations. The two leaders are to give a joint press conference at the end of their meeting.

In an interview in the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Putin stressed that his visit to Egypt - his first to an Arab country since becoming president in 2000 - was intended to bolster ties with a region where the former Soviet Union once wielded tremendous influence.

Commercial ties between Russia and Egypt are growing. Last year trade turnover doubled to reach US$834 million (Ђ643 million). Putin's delegation includes Russian business executives who are expected to meet Egyptian industrialists interested in Russian technology.

The last Kremlin chief to make an official state visit to Egypt was Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1964 inaugurated the first stage in the construction of the Aswan High Dam - a hugely ambitious project to irrigate arable land and which once supplied up to 80 percent of Egypt's electricity. The dam was partly financed and built with Soviet help.

But the close ties forged between Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and Moscow lapsed after his death in 1970, when the Arab nationalist hero was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who set the regional powerhouse on a new pro-American track that accelerated under Mubarak.

Today, Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S aid after Israel, and is seen as a staunch ally of Washington.

Russia, in turn, has forged stronger ties with Israel, which is home to a large Russian-speaking population and cooperates closely with Moscow on anti-terrorism efforts.

Russia, along with the United States, the European Union and United Nations, sponsors the "road map" peace plan. After a long period in which Israel and the Palestinians blamed each other for the lack of implementation, the plan has been revived since the Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as their leader in January.

Israel is expected to begin withdrawing its forces from the Gaza Strip later this year, a pullout in which Egypt is cooperating so as to ensure security on its northeast frontier.

Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, never held a presidential meeting in Cairo, but he attended an international summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik in 1996.

HENRY MEYER, Associated Press Writer

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