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Russia pledges $10 million for Palestinians in 2008 - Lavrov

PARIS, December 17 (RIA Novosti) - Russia has pledged financial aid to a Palestinian National Authority development program, including $10 million in 2008, its foreign minister told an international donor conference in Paris on Monday.

Representatives of 90 nations and international organizations were meeting to extend financial support to the Palestinian authorities, as well as to back recent peace talks between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Israel.

"We will soon make a large financial contribution as part of international assistance to the implementation of the reform and development program approved by the PNA leadership," Sergei Lavrov said.

He said Russia had been the first to allocate $10 million for healthcare and other urgent needs in the PNA following parliamentary elections in January 2006.

"Last fall we sent 60 tons of foodstuffs and medicines to the Gaza Strip," the minister added.

Russia also offers the PNA 170 scholarships annually, trains Palestinian diplomats, civil servants and police officers, he said.

"In order to enhance Palestinian security forces, we have prepared 50 armored personnel carriers, communication and special equipment for the PNA, and we expect countries in the region to assist in the delivery of this aid," Lavrov said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seeking $5.6 billion by 2010 in order to establish a viable Palestinian state.

The EU plans to allocate $650 million in aid to the Palestinians, a senior European Commission official said, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to give $300 million over the next three years.

The conference was designed to bolster the November 27 U.S.-sponsored Annapolis meeting, which gave a boost to dialogue between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The Palestinian territories are currently split between the West Bank, controlled by President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Gaza Strip, controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hamas.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in the U.S. to restart peace talks and to try to reach a deal on a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. The talks, which formally resumed on December 12, have been complicated by Israeli plans to build around 300 new homes near Jerusalem.

Peace efforts have also been complicated by deep divisions among the Palestinians. Hamas Islamists are opposed to peace talks with Israel and are refusing to recognize its right to exist.

On Monday Hamas called the Paris conference a "declaration of war."

The Gaza Strip has been isolated since it was seized by Hamas in June. Lavrov warned that the area could turn into "a kind of high security prison" for its 1.5 million population as "punishment for their free expression of will," referring to the January 2006 elections, which brought Hamas to power.

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