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Putin tells Arafat that Russia backs Palestinian independence

Arafat, Putin
Arafat is greeted by Putin in Moscow on Friday  

MOSCOW (CNN) -- President Vladimir Putin told Yasser Arafat on Friday that Russia supports an independent Palestinian state, but also believes the Palestinians should continue negotiations with Israel on a peace deal.

The Palestinian leader is visiting Moscow as part of a world tour in which he is seeking support for a sovereign state.

It follows the collapse of talks between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July at Camp David near Washington, D.C.


Arafat wants Russia to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process. Russia is a co-sponsor of the process, along with the United States, but has played a minor role in recent years.

Palestine has vowed to declare itself an independent state on September 13 despite Israeli opposition.

Arafat said he thought his visit to Russia was "very important, considering the actual failure of talks at Camp David," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

When he arrived at in Moscow, Arafat told reporters that Palestine's relations with Russia are "good and friendly."

Putin said he followed the Camp David negotiations "very closely," and reiterated Moscow's support for an independent Palestinian state.

But Russian officials have been urging Arafat to negotiate with Israel rather than unilaterally declare independence.

"This is a very difficult process," Putin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Arafat also met Friday with the head of Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, who backed the Palestinians' cause.

Alexy said he hoped the "problem of a Palestinian state will eventually be solved," and that Arafat's visit to Moscow "will promote a solution to this sore problem," Interfax reported.

Prior to his meetings in Moscow, Arafat visited Iran where asked Iran's President Mohammad Khatami, who is the current chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, to urgently convene an OIC meeting to discuss the Jerusalem issue, arguably the most divisive in the drawn-out Mideast peace process.

Along with declaring a sovereign state, the Palestinians want a part of the ancient city of Jerusalem -- particularly the Arab-majority east Jerusalem -- as their capital. But the Israelis insist that Jeruslame remain forever undivided under Israeli control.

The Camp David talks held last month broke up largely over that issue, with neither side willing to budge from their staunchly held positions.

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