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Putin to Abbas: you are the legitimate leader of all Palestinians

President Vladimir Putin told Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday that he is the legitimate leader of all Palestinians, as the Palestinian president continued his visit to Russia seeking support for his government in his standoff with the radical Islamic group Hamas.

"I want to assure you that Russia will support you as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people. I am convinced that you will do everything to restore the unity of the Palestinian people," Putin told Abbas.

"We have repeatedly come out in favor of the legal defense of the Palestinian people, down to the creation of a Palestinian state," Putin said in televised comments.

"We have had very painful, difficult events recently in the Gaza Strip, but we won't spare any effort to overcome the consequences of what has happened in order to the return to the situation that we had previously and so we can continue our path," Abbas was quoted as saying.

"Despite the takeover in Gaza, we feel responsibility for our people and we call on friendly nations to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people so that the social-economic situation there does not worsen," the Palestinian president said, according to ITAR-Tass.

The visit is Abbas' first to Russia since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. The takeover prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity, with the international community lining up behind Abbas and the West Bank-based government of moderates he has installed.

Russia is a member of the Quartet of Mideast negotiators, which also includes the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

Last year, Moscow attracted the ire of Israel and Western nations by hosting Hamas' top leadership for talks. Many observers have said the Hamas talks in Russia were part of an effort by Moscow to regain influence it enjoyed in the Middle East during the Soviet era.

Abbas, who met with Putin in Jordan in February, made his previous trip to Moscow in May 2006.

In an interview with the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta published Tuesday, Abbas said Russia had to make its own decision about whether to maintain contacts with Hamas.

"This is an affair for Russia as a sovereign state and does not create any problems for our bilateral relations," he was quoted as saying.

"We will present to Russia our point of view on the situation. This will be one of the main topics of the talks with the Russian leadership. Along with this, we cannot interfere in their policies and their initiatives," he said.

Abbas repeated his argument that Hamas' Gaza takeover was a coup d'etat. "We can talk about the reestablishment of dialogue and settlement of relations only after Hamas abandons this coup and its results," he said.

Abbas said last week that he hopes to reach a full peace deal with Israel in less than a year.

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