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Monday, 30 September, 2002, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Sharon tells Putin of Iraq fears
Ariel Sharon and Vladimir Putin
Israel wants Russia as an ally
Russian President Vladimir Putin has held talks in Moscow with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a further sign of improving relations between the two countries.

Israel has security issues to raise with Mr Putin, including fears that Russian technology could have fallen into the hands of Iraq and be used to develop weapons of mass destruction.

For its part, Russia believes an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is the key to stability in the entire Middle East.

Arafat poster held by child
The lifting of the siege of Yasser Arafat brought Israeli anger
At the beginning of the talks Mr Putin welcomed Israel's lifting of the siege of the headquarters of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, saying: "I believe this decision was difficult to take."

Russia had criticised the siege and its end on Sunday removed a potential obstacle for Mr Sharon's two-day visit.

The Israeli prime minister is under fire at home for lifting the siege - under US pressure - without arresting the suspected militants Israel said were taking refuge there.

Mr Putin also repeated his call for a speedy return of UN weapons inspectors to Baghdad and said that a solution to the Iraqi crisis had to be found by the Security Council.

Russia is opposed to American and British proposals to set Iraq a deadline for inspections or face military action.

Training militants

The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov, in Moscow, said Mr Sharon had been expected to show his Russian hosts evidence that Iraq had been training Palestinian militants on its territory.

But after the three hours of talks finished, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that Mr Sharon had handed over "no specific documents" to confirm links between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Palestinian militants.

President Vladimir Putin
Russia says it has strict control on technology exports
The report, quoting Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, confirmed that Mr Sharon had voiced his concern over the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Mr Ivanov said that Russia wanted the swift return of weapons inspectors so that they could "bring some clarity to the issue of whether there are any weapons or not".

Mr Sharon is due to hold more talks with Mr Ivanov on Tuesday.

The AP news agency said that Mr Sharon was also pressing Russia to use its influence with Syria to stop radical Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas from attacking Israel from Lebanon, where Syria is the main power broker.

The report says Israeli officials believe Iran has supplied Hezbollah with thousands of missiles for an attack on Israel that would be timed to disrupt any US strike on Iraq.

Sympathetic view

Russia is one of the quartet of Middle East peacemakers along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Correspondents say that Israel considers the EU and the UN biased in favour of the Palestinians and hopes for a more sympathetic view from Russia, which is fighting its own battles against mainly Muslim separatists.

Mr Sharon brought with him to Moscow three Russian-born survivors of the Tel Aviv disco suicide bombing in June 2001 which killed 21 people, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Faik Khuliev, 20, who was wounded in the bombing, said: "The message is to say to people that we who emigrated from Russia still suffer from terrorism as the Russians do from Chechen terror."

Yasser Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, is due to arrive in Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Mr Ivanov and other officials.

Improving ties

The BBC's Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel, says the meeting between Mr Putin and Mr Sharon is another sign of how far relations between the two countries have improved since Soviet times.

There were no diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union for 20 years.

Now Mr Sharon stresses how important it is that Moscow plays its part in the Middle East peace process.

Mr Sharon was due to meet leaders of Russia's Jewish community during his visit.

The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov
"Mr Putin said the Israeli Prime Minister came to Russia at a very complicated moment in the Middle East"

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See also:

30 Sep 02 | Media reports
04 Sep 01 | Middle East
04 Sep 01 | Middle East
25 Nov 00 | Middle East
30 Sep 02 | Europe
23 Nov 00 | Middle East
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