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Putin's Visit to France Marked by Discussions on Iraq, Protests - 2003-02-11

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been meeting in Paris with French officials on their initiative, with Germany, for a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis. But protesters have been reminding the Russian leader about problems he has back home.

While President Putin met with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris, hundreds of demonstrators gathered near Russia's Aeroflot airline office on the Champs Elysees and at the city's famous Pompidou Cultural Center.

The two presidents said their discussions dwelt mostly on a Russian, German, and French proposal to avert a war on Iraq. But the protesters were calling for discussions on two other issues: allegations of human-rights abuses by Russian soldiers in Chechnya, and curbs on press freedom across Russia.

The critics include human rights groups like Amnesty International, along with prominent French intellectuals and leftist politicians. Twenty-three protesters were arrested at Paris city hall, shortly before Mr. Putin was due to arrive for a reception.

A French press activist group, Reporters Without Borders, is among those protesting Mr. Putin's visit. A spokesman for the group, Soria Blatmann, said French officials must not neglect Russia's reported violations at home, as they search for backing on their Iraq position.

"Of course, we understand the focus is on Iraq, but ... when France receives Mr. Putin we have to talk about human rights. And Reporters Without Borders defends press freedom. And we have many things to say about this in Russia," she said.

Reporters Without Borders has criticized Russian curbs on news coverage of Chechnya, including official curbs on reporting a hostage taking by Chechen militants in Moscow late last year.

"There is a very big censorship about Chechnya, about the conflict in Chechnya but also everything that has something to do with Chechnya. That was very important during and after the hostage taking in Moscow, in the theater, when many media, Russian and foreign, also were censored by the authorities," he said.

Ms. Blatmann argues press censorship is growing in Russia, underscored by the Russian government's recent acquisition of two media companies. She says, investigations into last year's killings of three Russian journalists have gone nowhere.

Mr. Putin's itinerary in France reportedly avoids chances of meeting the demonstrators. Nonetheless, more protests are scheduled Wednesday before the Russian president departs.