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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Emphasizes Support for Abbas

APPutin hugging Abbas during the presidents' Kremlin meeting on Tuesday.
President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday came out in support of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, as the Foreign Ministry announced that it was downgrading its ties with Hamas.

A senior Foreign Ministry official official said Russia had downgraded its ties with the militant Hamas group and would increase aid to the Palestinian Authority, including 50 armored personnel carriers.

"I want to assure you that we will support you as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people," Putin told Abbas at the start of their one-hour meeting in the Kremlin.

Putin said Russia realized the difficulties his government faced and expressed hope that Abbas would do his utmost to ensure Palestinian unity. The leaders previously met in February in Amman, Jordan.

Moscow has downgraded its ties with Hamas but will continue negotiations with the militant Islamist group, First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov said after the leaders' talks. He said the only purpose of talks with Hamas, which violently took power in the Gaza Strip last month, would be to restore peace.

The visit to Russia by Abbas is widely seen as an attempt to garner more support from Moscow for his Fatah movement. At the same time, Russia is the only member of the Quartet trying to broker a Middle East peace deal that is officially in contact with Hamas.

While the other members -- the United States, the European Union and the United Nations -- have sought to bolster Abbas' leadership and shunned Hamas for its refusal to disavow violence and to recognize Israel, Russia has performed a kind of balancing act between the sides.

While saying that Moscow was reducing relations with Hamas, Denisov, who participated in the talks, said it would not drop its contacts with the militant group altogether.

"By continuing these contacts, we are pursuing just one objective: to help restore Palestinian unity," Denisov told reporters in the Kremlin. He added that Abbas said Russia was free to maintain contacts with Hamas and did not want to interfere.

Although he stressed that Hamas was not a monolithic movement and that Russia was looking to forge ties with its more moderate members, Denisov said there were no immediate plans for talks with the militant group.

A Hamas delegation came to Moscow on Putin's invitation in February, following the group's victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006. During the visit, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal met with a number of Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov, who met with Abbas on Monday, spoke by phone with Meshaal last week.

Abu Marzouk, deputy head of the Hamas political leadership, said the organization was not planning any visits to Moscow in the near future, saying the group was "pleased with the communication channel it now had with Russian side," RIA-Novosti reported from Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Marzouk said he welcomed Abbas' visit to Moscow and expressed hope that the visit would help the president embrace an open dialogue free of any conditions.

During his meeting with Putin, Abbas compared Gaza to a "big prison" from which thousands of people have had a hard time getting out.

"Thousands of people who wanted to cross the border have been stranded at the border between Egypt and the Palestinian territory," he said, referring to the Rafah crossing on Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip.

Abbas also urged friendly nations to send humanitarian aid to help prop up the Palestinian economy.

Russia plans to send 50 armored personnel vehicles on the condition that they are not used in the internal Palestinian conflict, Denisov said.

Since Abbas' government cannot afford to pay for the vehicles, Denisov said the transfer would be part of military aid to Palestine designed to "help maintain law and order on the West Bank."

Russia had promised to send the vehicles two years ago, but the transfer was put on ice for fear of destabilizing the situation in the region.

Dmitry Vasilyev, an analyst with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, estimated the value of the shipment at less than $20 million, as Russia is unlikely to send new vehicles.

Russia would also send humanitarian aid, Denisov said.

He said Moscow had been one of the first to offer the Palestinian Authority aid last year -- a total of $10 million -- after the Hamas victory led European contributors and the United States to stop funding, and Israel to withhold tax revenues. Western aid was resumed after Abbas fired the Hamas-led government last month.

Denisov would not say how much Russia would send this time, as it was still studying what the government needed and how aid could be delivered.

"We are proceeding from our real capabilities, but we will try to satisfy the requests of our Palestinian partners to the maximum," Denisov told reporters in the Kremlin.

Vladimir Akhmedov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, praised Moscow's effort to broker peace, saying that, unlike Western capitals, it was not taking sides.

"The region has been divided along so many lines," Akhmedov said. "We're trying to unite them."

Despite the downgrading of ties with Hamas, Akhmedov said contacts through diplomatic channels would continue.

Speaking to reporters after the talks, Abbas said he was ready to participate in an international meeting aimed at brokering peace in the Middle East, and that he had discussed the possibility with Putin.

"But we don't know which countries will take part, when and where it will be, or what topics will be discussed," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.