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Russia's Lavrov urges halt to violence in Middle East

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MOSCOW, April 10 (RIA Novosti) - Russia's foreign minister said Thursday he believes the first priority for a Middle East settlement is to stop the violence in the region.

Sergei Lavrov also said the Mideast situation is complex. "The situation is complicated and is characterized by a number of problems," he told journalists after talks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In addition, Lavrov said, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is difficult, and Russia is promoting efforts to lift the blockade in the region.

The Russian minister said that despite all the difficulties, the negotiating process between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is ongoing. Russia is urging the sides to implement agreements reached at a U.S.-backed peace conference in Annapolis last November, and to try and prevent unilateral measures.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday the Middle East Quartet, comprising Russia, the EU, the UN and the U.S., will gather on April 17 in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

On April 17, PNA leader Mahmoud Abbas is expected in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov. Among other issues, a proposed Middle East peace conference due to be held in Moscow in the future will be on the agenda.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Monday in Jerusalem to discuss the peace process in their first meeting since a devastating Israeli raid on the Gaza Strip in late February left some 120 Palestinians dead, many of them civilians.

Israel said the military operation was in response to rocket attacks on Israeli border towns from Gaza. Abbas halted peace talks with Israel after the assault.

Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) resumed peace talks last year after a seven-year hiatus at the U.S.-sponsored Middle East summit in Annapolis. They pledged to do everything possible to draft a peace settlement treaty by the end of 2008, as well as come to an agreement on the form of a future independent Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party controls the West Bank after being ousted by the hard-line Islamic group Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and some EU states, from the Gaza Strip in a bloody conflict last June.

Fatah receives financial assistance from the West, while Gaza is fully isolated and boycotted by the PNA, the U.S. and Israel. Hamas has called for reconciliation with Fatah, but refuses to give up control of Gaza.

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