Putin pledges aid to Palestinians

Russia to provide equipment, training to security forces

April 30, 2005|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Russian President Vladimir V. Putin pledged yesterday to provide equipment and training for Palestinian security forces to help them rein in militant groups.

Putin, ending meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, said his government would begin by supplying helicopters and communications equipment. Russia then plans to train Palestinian security officers in Moscow before deciding on any further assistance, he said.

Putin spoke after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has vowed to curb violence against Israel and bring order to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"If we expect President Abbas to fight terrorism, he cannot do that with only stones in his hand," Putin told reporters during a joint news conference with Abbas at the presidential headquarters here.

The Russians will provide two transport helicopters for Abbas' use - replacements for aircraft used by Yasser Arafat until they were destroyed by Israeli forces during fighting.

Putin appeared to have shelved plans to supply 50 armored personnel carriers, an idea that drew Israeli opposition on grounds that the vehicles might be used by militants. He did not mention the armored vehicles when asked about them during the news conference.

Palestinian authorities were permitted to have similar Russian-made vehicles under an interim peace accord during the 1990s, but most were destroyed during the fighting with Israel, said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

A spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry said Russian aid for the Palestinians came up during meetings between Putin and Israeli leaders a day earlier.

"They gave us a commitment that they will coordinate with us their support for the PA," said the spokesman, Mark Regev.

Putin's stopover in the West Bank, which began with a wreath-laying at Arafat's glass-encased grave, followed a day of meetings with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

It was the first visit by a Kremlin leader since Israel was established in 1948, and it signaled Putin's desire for a more prominent role in Middle East peacemaking. Russia is part of the quartet - with the United States, the United Nations and the European Union - that sponsored the diplomatic initiative known as the road map, which envisions a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those efforts have been dominated by the United States, and Russia so far has taken a back seat. The former Soviet Union was a major player in the region, backing Arab regimes and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Putin vowed that his government would become more involved, after talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders that he described as fruitful. Representatives of the quartet are to meet in Moscow on May 8.

The Russian leader said he remained committed to holding an international conference on the peace process this fall but envisioned a gathering of experts, rather than of political leaders.

Israel reacted coolly to Putin's proposal on Wednesday for a conference, saying the two sides had made insufficient progress to hold such a meeting.

But Abbas expressed strong support yesterday and said the Palestinians were ready to move quickly to talks aimed at a permanent solution to the conflict.

Abbas, elected in January, said the new Palestinian leadership would fulfill promises to crack down on fighters violating a truce declared by Israel and the Palestinians at a summit in February.

"We will confront them," Abbas said.

The main militant groups declared a conditional cease-fire of their own last month. Despite weeks of relative calm, Israeli officials complain that Abbas has not acted to arrest militants and take away their weapons.

Abbas hopes to quiet the gunmen by folding the fighters into Palestinian forces. Abbas warned this week that he would use an "iron fist" in dealing with truce violators. Two militants in the Gaza Strip were arrested Thursday as suspects in mortar attacks on Jewish settlements, Israel Radio reported.

In recent weeks, Abbas consolidated about a dozen overlapping security agencies into three branches, forcing hundreds of senior officers to retire.

Putin said those efforts would require more resources.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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