Leaders of Italy, Russia, to discuss business ventures, foreign policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Italy's Premier Romano Prodi on Wednesday for discussions focusing on economic ties, including construction of a superjet and development of railway system.

The countries are working to improve their economic ties and the meeting has a strong focus on business deals. With a trade turnover of more than EUR20 billion (US$26.44 billion), Italy is Russia's third commercial partner after Germany and China.

Putin, who met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Tuesday, was received with military honors at the Adriatic port city of Bari on Wednesday and welcomed by about 1,500 Bari residents lining the streets around the central Piazza della Liberta.

One of the main focuses of the talks was gas, as Italy's Eni SpA and Russia's OAO Gazprom state-controlled gas giant concluded a deal last year. The industry ministers also signed a deal for the joint construction and marketing of a medium-range civilian plane.

"Let's hope this visit results in something good, like jobs for young people," said Antonio Buttiglione, 20, a local student who waited in the square for three hours in hopes of getting a glimpse of Putin without luck.

Security was tight. Officers from the State Police, paramilitary Carabinieri police, and others worked overtime. Snipers lined the roofs along the half-hour ride from the airport to the center of the city, and police helicopters escorted the Russian delegation.

Members of Prodi's center-left coalition called on the premier Tuesday to address with Putin allegations of human rights violations in Russia, including attacks on journalists who write about official corruption, Chechnya and other sensitive issues.

"Nothing has been clarified or even reported about the deaths of some journalists who have repeatedly denounced the massacre of Chechens by Russian soldiers," a Radical Party statement said.

Investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic, was shot dead in Moscow in October, and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said 13 journalists have been killed in contract-style murders since Putin took office in 2000.

In Rome, Chechnya's former health minister, Umar Khanbiyev, held a news conference with Radical Party leaders during which he denounced human rights violations in Chechnya.

"Italian politicians must tell the truth about the situation in Chechnya and especially the situation regarding human rights," Khanbiyev was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.

In Bari, about 150 people mostly young communists demonstrated against Putin in a square next to the one where the meeting was being held.

Franco Venturini, a leading expert on Russia, called on the Italian government not to remain silent on human rights, even in the face of huge economic interests. "There is ... a duty to be true to principles that are not negotiable," he wrote Wednesday in a front-page editorial in Corriere della Sera.

In an interview with the Russian agency Ria Novosti, Prodi said Rome and Moscow view dialogue and collective efforts by the international community as a way to resolve world crises, including in Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan and on Iran's nuclear program.

The two leaders had already met Tuesday evening in Rome and discussed international affairs including Kosovo and Iran's nuclear program.

Russia has been reluctant to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, but has been moving close to an agreement with the United States and three European nations Germany, Britain and France on a new package of measures against Iran.

Prodi's office said Russia and Italy also were to discuss the future of the disputed Serbian province of Kosovo as the European Union prepares to enforce a U.N. plan that gives Kosovo supervised statehood, reports AP.

The Security Council is split on the issue. Russia supports Serbia, which rejects the plan. The United States and EU back it.

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