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. Sarkozy fails to soften Russian backing for Iran
MOSCOW, Oct 10 (AFP) Oct 10, 2007
Russian President Vladimir Putin refused Wednesday to bend to Western pressure over Iran, saying after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he did not believe the Islamic republic was trying to build a nuclear bomb.

"We do not have information that Iran is trying to create a nuclear weapon. We operate on the principle that Iran does not have those plans," Putin told journalists after the end of the talks with Sarkozy who was in Moscow seeking to ease tensions.

He added that Russia shared the West's desire for Iran's nuclear programme, in which Russia is building the first civilian power station, to be "absolutely transparent."

The Kremlin leader's statement reaffirmed an East-West split over Iran.

Moscow supports Tehran in rejecting accusations by Washington and in EU capitals that the country is hiding a secret bomb making project behind its Russian-backed civilian atomic programme.

Russia, which has veto power on the UN Security Council, has also been reluctant to back Western calls for tougher sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to halt sensitive nuclear activities.

Sarkozy said after his talks in the Kremlin that Putin's readiness was "important." "After that, there might be a difference in the analysis," he added.

But there was no sign of confirmation that Franco-Russian positions on the controversy had "moved closer," as Sarkozy had indicated following a dinner with Putin on Tuesday night.

This was the first visit as president to Moscow for the new French leader, who stands out among Western leaders for his firm criticism of human rights in Putin's Russia.

Earlier, Sarkozy told students at Moscow's State Technical University that Russia must embrace political freedom. "Build a democratic society in Russia and the world will be grateful," he said.

Sarkozy was also due to meet with the leaders of Russia's most active human rights organisation Memorial.

However, speaking at his press conference with Putin, Sarkozy avoided controversy, saying: "France does not want to give lessons to anyone."

On Kosovo, another issue sharply dividing Russia and the Western powers, Sarkozy appealed for European countries to remain united, since "this is foremost a European issue."

However, he said that it was important "that the discussion remains open with our Russian friends."

Russia has sided with Serbia in opposing French and other Western backing for independence in the ethnic-Albanian dominated province, currently administered by the United Nations.

Sarkozy, who met Putin for the first time at the Group of Eight summit in Germany in June, has worked to steer France closer to the United States, but he stressed that this did not mean greater confrontation with Russia.

"Friendship between France and Russia is necessary for balance in the world," Sarkozy told the students. "We are not working against each other, but together."

"I am a friend of the United States, but that does not mean a vassal.... I have disagreements with the United States. The world cannot be ruled over by one power, even the main one."

Putin praised strong growth in French-Russian bilateral trade and Sarkozy announced that French companies were keen to buy into Russia's state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

"I told Putin that French companies are ready to buy into Gazprom," Sarkozy said at the joint news conference with Putin, responding to a question about investment between the two countries.

"There will be no French protectionism. We just want mutual benefits."

Gazprom and France's Total signed a deal earlier this year to develop jointly Russia's vast Shtokman gas field following a telephone conversation between Putin and Sarkozy.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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