Putin must play conclusive role in Middle East peace

Russian President Vladimir Putin must play a decisive role in finding an answer to the international community's standoff with Iran over that country's nuclear ambitions, Spain's prime minister said Thursday in a joint press conference with the visiting Russian leader. Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also called on Putin to lend his weight to efforts to bring about Middle East peace, and appealed for an end to the violence that has swept the Muslim world over European newspapers' decision to publish caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

"The role of the Russian federation, of President Putin, is going to be decisive to all that affects the dialogue and the peace prospects in the Middle East following the Palestinian elections, as well as the current situation in Iran," Zapatero said. Putin reiterated that Russia does not consider the militant Palestinian group Hamas a terrorist organization, and urged the global community to work with a Hamas-led Palestinian government.

"Hamas has arrived at the doors of power through legitimate elections," Putin said. "We must respect the Palestinian people and we have to look for solutions for the Palestinian people, for the international community, and also for Israel. Contacts with Hamas must continue." Putin said Russia would invite Hamas representatives to participate in talks in the future.

Zapatero gave no details of what role he hopes Putin plays in the Iran nuclear standoff. Putin is on a two-day state visit to Spain, his first as Russia's president. Before meeting Zapatero, Putin visited the Senate.

On Wednesday, he was feted by King Juan Carlos with a gala dinner, but the monarch used a speech at the event to urge Putin to ensure that his country remains a reliable energy supplier. A recent Russia-Ukraine dispute over gas prices, which led to cuts in gas supplies in some European countries, raised doubts over Russia's reliability as a key energy provider of the European Union.

Putin called for a strengthening of Russian-Spanish relations for the sake of "our common home a secure, fair and socially orientated Europe." Juan Carlos said economic ties should be boosted, adding that Spanish companies could become more active on the Russian market, especially in the fields of energy, transport and tourism.

Earlier, Industry Minister Jose Luis Montilla confirmed that Russian energy giant Gazprom and Spanish-Argentine oil and energy company Repsol YPF were in talks to collaborate on a liquefied natural gas project.

The king hailed Putin for implementing a number of economic and social reforms at home, saying they served to strengthen Russia. He also praised "the Russian people's participation" in creating "an effective system of democratic guarantees ... which would make Russia even stronger, more open and prosperous." Some critics have slammed Putin for what they say is backtracking on democracy by reining in independent media, abolishing direct elections of regional leaders and turning a blind on human rights abuses in the separatist province of Chechnya, reports the AP.

N.U.