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Russia to host next Mideast peace conference

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the results of the Mideast peace conference held in the United States, and announced that the next conference would be hosted by Moscow.
MOSCOW, November 28 (RIA Novosti) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the results of the Mideast peace conference held in the United States, and announced that the next conference would be hosted by Moscow.

Following Tuesday's talks in Annapolis, Maryland, attended by 44 nations, George W. Bush is set to meet on Wednesday with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the White House.

The one-day talks produced a joint statement signed by Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, including an agreement to broker a peace deal by the end of next year.

The Russian diplomat told journalists during his flight home from Annapolis: "I would like to note the efforts of the American organizers of this meeting toward finding the means to ensure that such a document was produced."

"I believe this was a very useful event. As you know, President Vladimir Putin immediately supported this initiative by President George Bush [to hold the conference] when it was advanced last summer."

He said the conference participants had welcomed Russia's offer to host the next Mideast peace meeting in the Russian capital.

"All the participants welcomed our readiness to hold the next meeting in Moscow. Its date and agenda have yet to be coordinated, and will take into account progress at talks between the Palestinians and Israelis."

Expectations for Tuesday's peace conference held at a U.S. Naval Academy were initially low, but the presence of several Arab states, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, gave the event added authority.

In their joint statement, Olmert and Abbas agreed to "immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements."

Lavrov said the document requires the parties to start immediate negotiations, which will be based on all previously adopted documents, including UN Security Council resolutions and "roadmap" deals to settle the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and was excluded from the talks, dismissed the conference as a "waste of time", and said it would ignore any agreements reached there.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri described the joint statement signed by Abbas and Olmert, who are both politically weak at home, as: "a declaration of the beginning of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis and not a declaration of an agreement between them," and said the statement was "sharp proof of the failure of the Annapolis meeting."

Thousands of miles away from the conference, thousands of protesters gathered in the Gaza Strip. On Gaza City's central square, the crowd chanted slogans: "Down with the devils who have gathered in America," "Palestine and Jerusalem are not for sale," "We will never recognize Israel," and "Our refugees must return home."

At the Annapolis talks, Abbas reiterated Palestinian demands that Israel remove its settlements in the West Bank and release thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

Arab states have pledged to improve relations with Israel when an independent Palestinian state is formed, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and when Palestinian refugees are brought home. They are also seeking an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands occupied in the 1967 Israel-Arab War, as well as from Syria's Golan Heights.

Olmert said on Tuesday: "It is time to end the boycott and alienation of the state of Israel... I have no doubt that the reality created in our region in 1967 will change significantly. While this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable. I know it. Many of my people know it. We are ready for it."

Iran, which received no invitation to the Annapolis talks, added an edge to the proceedings by announcing on Tuesday that it had produced a ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). The missile's range would allow it to reach Israel, as well as United States military bases in the Middle East.

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