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Putin and Abbas Meet on Russian Middle East Conference

Discussions continued Friday in Moscow on Russia's offer to host a second Middle East peace conference. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Russia's capital where he met with several officials, including President Vladimir Putin. From Moscow, Colin McCullough reports for VOA.

President Vladimir Putin returned from visits to Libya and Italy to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. The two discussed plans for Moscow to host the conference in June.

Russian officials see the conference as a follow-up to the Annapolis, Maryland conference held by the Untied States in November. That conference revived talks between Israel and the Palestinians with the aim of reaching a peace agreement by the end of this year.

At the meeting in Moscow Friday, Mr. Putin acknowledged the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians resulting from rocket attacks on Israel launched from Gaza and the scale of Israel's response.

Mr. Putin said this is a difficult moment in the peace process but that efforts for peace by Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are welcome.

Mr. Abbas said he believes the Moscow conference will make progress toward a comprehensive peace.

Earlier in his visit to Moscow, Mr. Abbas met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two agreed that future mideast negotiations should involve Lebanon and Syria. That would open the possibility for a peace agreement between Israel and those two Arab countries.

Although Mr. Abbas said he is enthusiastic about a Russia-hosted conference, Israel has not made a commitment and has expressed reluctance in the past.

Some analysts contend that Russia's possible role is unclear as its influence in the region has weakened.

"Russia can be only an intermediary - no more than that. I mean, we can sort of sit at the table and ask both sides to be nice to each other. But if they refuse to be nice to each other, or actually refuse to attend, there's nothing much we can do," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent, Moscow-based political analyst.

Mr. Putin has been active on the diplomatic front lately, meeting with three foreign leaders in the past two days.

Before he met with the Palestinian leader, the Russian president traveled to Libya to meet with Moammar Gadhafi and to Sardinia where he met with Silvio Berlusconi, whose coaliton won parliamentary elections in Italy earlier this week.

Mr. Putin's second term as president comes to an end within weeks. But he is expected to become Russia's prime minister under President-elect Dmitry Medvedev.