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Russia reaffirms support for independent Palestine

The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, today reaffirmed Moscow's commitment to an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, on a visit to the West Bank.

JERICHO // The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, today reaffirmed Moscow's commitment to an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, on a visit to the West Bank.

"We have supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital since the last century, and we still support it," Mr Medvedev said at a joint press conference with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat first issued a declaration of independence at a meeting in Algiers in November 1988, with the former Soviet Union quick to express support for it.

Mr Medvedev arrived in the West Bank today for talks with Mr Abbas on his first visit to the occupied territories.

The Russian leader flew in to Amman, then drove across the Allenby Bridge border crossing before arriving in the oasis town of Jericho for talks with Mr Abbas focused on the crisis in peace talks with Israel.

There was a festive atmosphere as the president drove into town, with the streets lined with Russian and Palestinian flags, and posters of the two leaders fluttering in the breeze.

Crowds of expectant locals were milling around the town centre, among them hundreds of school children, as the convoy swept in, an AFP correspondent said.

The trip is a rare Middle East visit for Mr Medvedev, who is being accompanied by hundreds of Russian businessmen, and was due to hold similar talks with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman tomorrow.

He had also been due to visit Israel but postponed the trip after a strike by employees with the Israeli foreign ministry.

Mr Medvedev was also expected to open a Russian-funded museum housing Palestinian antiquities during his brief visit to the town.

But the main focus of the trip was for the Russian leader to talk with Mr Abbas about the peace process, which stalled several months ago over the issue of continued settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

In a statement ahead of the visit, the Kremlin said: "The upcoming talks with the Palestinian leadership follow the logic of Russia's fundamental commitment to reinvigorate international efforts to stabilise the situation and achieve peace in the Middle East."

Russia, which is one of the four members of the Middle East peace Quartet along with the United States, European Union and United Nations, has traditionally competed with Washington for influence as a power broker in the region.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, described the visit as of "historic importance in light of the support given to the Palestinian position on the negotiations that stalled over Israel's refusal to halt settlements."

The last time a Russian leader visited the West Bank was in 2005, when the former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin paid a visit to the region.

Mr Medvedev's top foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, said Russia was not so ambitious as to believe it could single-handedly re-start the peace talks.

"That would be a very high hurdle," he said. "We do not consider ourselves a messiah.

"We are ready to demonstrate a responsible approach and share that responsibility with everyone."

Mr Medvedev's trip comes ahead of a Quartet meeting on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich next month, which is hoping to give fresh impetus to the negotiations.

Direct talks began in September but ground to a halt weeks later when an Israeli ban on settlement construction in the West Bank expired and Israel's largely right-wing government refused to renew it.

The Palestinians have said they will not hold talks while Israel builds on land they want for a future state.

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