Russian president meets Palestinian leaders after day of talks with Israelis

Russian President Vladimir Putin laid a wreath on the late-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's tomb Friday and held talks with Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, but Palestinians held out little hope for concrete results.

Putin was greeted at the Palestinian headquarters, known as the muqaata, by an honor guard of Palestinian security forces. A military band played a halting version of Russia's national anthem and the Palestinian anthem as Putin and Abbas stood side by side.

Security officers then placed a wreath, with a banner reading "from the president of the Russian Federation," before Arafat's tomb. Putin approached, bowed his head, stood silently at attention for a few seconds, bowed again and walked away.

Dozens of Russian women married to Palestinian men stood outside the compound, greeting the Russian leader's arrival with exultant chants of "Putin."

Putin, the first Kremlin leader to visit the region, arrived with a plan to sell 50 armored personnel carriers and two helicopters to the Palestinians to replace vehicles destroyed during more than 4 1/2 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel was trying to scuttle the deal, fearing the armored vehicles could fall into the hands of militants.

"I think I can say the choppers are a done deal, but about the vehicles, we still don't have a clear-cut answer from the Israelis," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The helicopters would be used to transport Abbas. Israel destroyed the Palestinian Authority's presidential helicopters as part of its campaign to limit the movement of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is accompanying Putin, said Thursday that the two sides would discuss how Russia could assist the Palestinians with their security. But when asked if Israel wouldn't be upset by the sale of armored personnel carriers, he replied, "This is an offer not so much for Israel, but for the Palestinians."

Putin, who visited Ramallah on the last day of his three-day visit to the area, arrived in the region promoting a fall Mideast peace conference in Moscow, and Palestinians responded enthusiastically _ but the idea dropped off the table during Wednesday's talks in Jerusalem after Israel and the U.S. expressed reservations.

Lavrov 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."

One of Putin's goals is to strengthen the Russian role as a player in Middle East diplomacy. Russia is one of the four co-sponsors of the "road map" peace plan, along with the U.S., U.N. and the European Union, but the Americans have taken the lead.

U.S. President George W. Bush formally presented the plan in June 2003, but it stalled after neither side carried out its initial requirements.

Putin's talks in Israel on Thursday concentrated on other issues - Iran, Syria and anti-Semitism.

Putin demanded that Iran submit its nuclear program to international monitoring.

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

Iran denies it seeks atomic weapons.

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

But Putin, who said recently he was convinced Iran was not trying to build nuclear weapons, stressed that Russia's cooperation with Iran was for purely peaceful purposes.

He 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.

Putin said the missiles could not be used by terrorists, and he repeated earlier assurances that the short range missiles were no threat to Israeli territory.

"The only way you can come into contact with these missiles would be to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?" Putin said in a joint news conference with Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

But he failed to persuade the Israelis, or the United States.

Bush made plain his unhappiness at a news conference Thursday. "We didn't appreciate that," he said, "but we made ourselves clear."

The two men are scheduled to meet in Moscow early next month.

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."

MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press Writer

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