Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday urged Hamas to work quickly for the release of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, during a meeting in Damascus with the movement's political chief.
Medvedev told Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who joined the Russian leader and Syrian President Bashar Assad at the end of their meeting, that he was dedicated to helping the residents of the impoverished Gaza Strip and to seeing Israel soften its economic blockade of the coastal territory in order to let in humanitarian aid.
Shalit has been in Palestinian captivity since he was abducted in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas have been engaged in ongoing indirect negotiations over a prisoner swap deal which would see Shalit released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but the exchange has yet to be finalized.
The Russian president also expressed to Meshal during the meeting the importance with which he viewed the establishment of a sovereign political state.
Before being joined by Meshal, Medvedev told Assad that he hoped to increase cooperation with Syria in the oil, gas and atomic energy sectors.
"Cooperation on atomic energy [with Syria] could get a second wind," Medvedev said at a press conference with Assad in Damascus.
The Russian leader gave no further details on what nuclear cooperation had been discussed.
"Political coordination continues in an organized, ongoing way. We concentrated on activating our economic cooperation," Assad said at the press conference.
Assad said they also discussed developments in the peace process in the Middle East.
Russian news agencies quoted Assad as saying that he had discussed with Medvedev the possibility of building power plants, including nuclear ones, in Syria.
Russia says all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear power programs and is due this year to start up an atomic power station a Russian state company has built in Iran.
When speaking about Iran's nuclear program, Medvedev called for "constructive cooperation" with the international community on Iran's part.
Meanwhile, the Syrian news agency SANA reported Tuesday that Assad has asked Medvedev to help remove nuclear weapons from the Middle East. .
According to the report, Assad urged Russia to "contribute to turning the Middle East into an area free of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons."
Assad also commended Russia for helping to achieve peace in the Middle East, adding that could play an effective role in achieve a just and regional comprehensive peace.
The SANA report added that Medvedev expressed confidence that Russia and Syria will will cooperate to solve regional and international issues, especially in bringing an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Medvedev arrived in Damascus on Monday, in the first official visit by a Russian or Soviet leader to Syria.
The visit is seen, among other things, as intended to increase Russia's influence in the Middle East, and is perhaps a foray by Moscow toward further involvement in possible future peace talks between Israel and its neighbor to the north.
According to some reports President Shimon Peres, whose Moscow visit runs parallel to Medvedev's trip, had passed a message to the Syrian president, indicating that Israel would not attack this summer.
Syria has also been rumored to be interested in acquiring advanced Russian-made Iskander surface-to-surface missiles, although sources had said Moscow was likely to refuse such a transaction.
Medvedev is expected to head to Turkey later on Tuesday, where he will meet with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is also scheduled to participate in a Russian-Turkish business forum.
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