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Russian FM expresses support for Abbas in his conflict with Hamas

Russia considers Palestianian President Mahmoud Abbas the legitimate leader of all Palestinians, the foreign minister told Abbas, who was visiting Moscow seeking support in his conflict with Hamas.

Sergey Lavrov's comments appeared to be the strongest to date in support of Abbas and the West Bank-based government of moderates he installed following the violent June takeover of the Gaza Strip by the radical Islamic group Hamas.

"We firmly support you as the lawful leader of the entire Palestinian people," Lavrov told Abbas, "and we support your efforts aimed at restoring law, achieving unity among the Palestinian people and continuing the process to seek a resolution to the situation in the Palestinian territories."

Abbas, who arrived Sunday in Moscow for his first trip to Russia since the Hamas takeover, met with Lavrov a day before meeting with Russia's president.

"I am convinced that your meeting tomorrow with President Vladimir Putin will help us map out specific ways of cooperation in bilateral affairs and in the Middle East peace process," Lavrov told him.

Speaking to reporters before meeting with Lavrov, Abbas told the foreign minister: "I am confident in your support of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian national administration and I'm sure you will continue rendering support in all spheres."

"Russia is a friendly state, having a great influence in the region and in the Quartet of international intermediaries," Abbas said, speaking through a translator. "Therefore, the support of Moscow is of great importance to us."

Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip, which prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity, with the international community lining up behind Abbas and his government.

Russia is a member of the Quartet of Mideast negotiators, which also comprises the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. Last year, however, Moscow raised the ire of Israel and Western nations when they hosted Hamas' top leadership for talks in Moscow.

On the eve of his meetings with Lavrov, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Abbas as saying he intended during his visit to "discuss all the pressing problems, especially as many such problems have amassed.... Our friendship with Russia is rooted in history, and we will preserve and strengthen this relationship."

In their comments to reporters, neither Lavrov nor Abbas mentioned Hamas, and there was no indication that Moscow' position was unchanged since last month when the Foreign Ministry called on Abbas and Islamic Hamas to seek a "wide-ranging dialogue" and avert the deepening crisis.

The daily newspaper Kommersant, meanwhile, reported that during his trip, Abbas hoped to persuade Putin to give full support to his Fatah movement.

Before the meeting, Abbas told the state-controlled English-language broadcaster Russia Today that what happened in Gaza "was a coup, rising against the law...."

"It is a rebellion against authorities on the part of some of its representatives. That is why it is essential to put everything back in place, to get rid of the consequences of this coup and, of course, we need to continue a dialogue between each other," he said.

Abbas, who last met with Putin in Russia in May 2006, said last week that he hopes to reach a full peace deal with Israel in less than a year.