Russian president warns Iran against seeking atomic arms

Friday, April 29, 2005

JERUSALEM -- He waded through the painful past at a heartrending Holocaust museum. He presented a monument to victims of that "monstrous crime" as a gift to Israel from the Russian people. And he met with Jewish veterans of the Soviet army who fought Nazi Germany.

On the first visit ever by a Kremlin leader to Israel, Russian President Vladimir Putin drew a link between the Holocaust and the millions of Soviet deaths in World War II as he sought Thursday to cement improving relations between Moscow and the Jewish state after decades of Soviet-era discord.

"The people of Israel and the people of Russia are very close," Putin told about 20 elderly veterans -- their chests laden with shining Soviet medals -- who emigrated to Israel after the war. "The Jewish people and the people of Russia, of the Soviet Union, suffered the very gravest losses during the war."

Putin also sought to soothe his hosts by warning Iran's government not to seek nuclear weapons.

"Our Iranian partners must give up development of nuclear cycle technology," he said, referring to enriched uranium that can be used in weapons, "and must not hinder putting all their nuclear programs under complete international control."

The statement by Putin, whose country is building a nuclear-powered electricity plant in Iran, was perhaps his strongest call for the Tehran government to convince the world that it does not want atomic weapons.

Cooperation for peace

But Putin, who said in February he was certain Iran was not trying to build nuclear arms, stressed that Russia's cooperation with Iran was for purely peaceful purposes.

Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert complained Russia is selling components to Iran that can be used to make nonconventional weapons and said the assistance to one of Israel's strongest enemies is a cause of concern.

Olmert, who took part in Putin's lunch meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told Israel TV afterward that the two leaders "agreed on a number of practical steps" on security matters, but he gave no details.

Putin defended Russia's agreement to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, a deal with another longtime foe of Israel that has clouded his historic visit.

He said the missiles could not be converted to portable use by terrorists without authorities being aware, and he repeated earlier assurances that the short-range missiles are no threat to Israeli territory.

"The only way you can come into contact with these missiles would be to attack Syria. Do you want to do that?" Putin said at a joint news conference with Israeli President Moshe Katsav after their meeting.

Israeli officials appeared unconvinced.

Katsav said selling Syria missiles could hurt Israel's attempts to fight terrorists -- a jab at the Russian president's call for strengthening cooperation against the common threat of terrorism.

Israeli media reported after Putin's meeting with Sharon that the two countries plan to set up an instant notification system about terror threats.

Israeli media also said that Sharon objects to Russia's plan to sell military equipment to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials say Russia is interested in selling armored vehicles to their security services for use in riot control, but Israel fears the vehicles could fall into the hands of militants.

Putin is to meet with Palestinian leaders Friday, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters they would discuss how Moscow can help the Palestinians with security.

One idea that appeared to drop off the table was Putin's proposal that Moscow host a Mideast peace conference in the fall. Israelis officials expressed reservations, and Lavrov played it down Thursday.

He said Putin did not suggest a summit of government leaders but rather a meeting of high-level experts. "There is nothing unusual about this. Such meetings are held periodically," he said.

Another issue that analysts had said would probably be raised during Putin's visit, the presence in Israel of Russian business tycoons the Kremlin wants to put on trial, "was not brought up at all," Lavrov said.

In a day packed with symbolism, Putin strongly condemned anti-Semitism amid concern among Israeli officials about a rise of the phenomenon in Russia. He toured a stark new museum commemorating the Holocaust's victims and presented a sculpture recalling those victims as a gift from the Russian people.

"In the 21st century there can be no place for xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of racial or religious intolerance," Putin said. "This is not only our debt to the millions who died in the gas chambers, it is our debt to future generations."

In the afternoon, he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which recently dedicated a new museum complex. His head covered with a traditional Jewish skullcap, he laid a wreath and strengthened the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance, where the ashes of Jews killed by the Nazis are buried.

Writing in the guest book, Putin said: "We are deeply mournful of all the victims of the Holocaust. This type of tragedy must never happen again."

Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem's director and the new museum's curator, who gave Putin the tour, said the Russian leader took great interest in details, particularly events that occurred in the former Soviet Union.

"He was very emotional and especially moved by the small individual stories," Shalev told The Associated Press. "He was very involved and spoke about the importance of the memories in the education of our generation."

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