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Putin Denies Any Political Motive in Yukos Case

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Rome on a two-day official visit. On Wednesday he met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the pope. Mr. Putin is scheduled to take part in an EU-Russia summit on Thursday.

Talks between the Russian leader and the Italian prime minister were expected to touch on the criticism faced by Mr. Putin at home over the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Critics have complained that the arrest of the former head of the Yukos oil company on charges of fraud and tax evasion was politically motivated. They claim it was an effort to curb Mr. Khodorkovsky's financial and political power and avenge his funding of opposition parties.

But speaking in Rome Wednesday Mr. Putin, who has denied any political motive in the case, assured that the state should never interfere in business. He said he would not accept illegal prosecutions in Russia.

The Italian prime minister, a personal friend of the Russian leader, said the two had discussed the Yukos situation. Mr. Berlusconi said it did not seem that political abuse of power was involved.

During their talks, Mr. Putin and Mr. Berlusconi consolidated already strong ties between the two countries and signed 12 new bilateral accords. They included agreements to combat terrorism and international crime, economic and cultural ventures.

The Russian leader had words of praise for Italy's performance at the helm of the European Union and said he was convinced this would be positive for Russia's relations with all of Europe.

On a more personal level, Mr. Putin said that he considered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi a very concrete person who knows what he wants and clearly explains his national interests. He said the Italian leader was a man who always kept his word making him a very trustworthy partner.

In the evening the Russian president met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. While no mention was made of the pope's long-time desire to visit Moscow, both said they hoped there would be positive developments in dialogue between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church.