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ROME - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi yesterday called for direct talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, saying it was "necessary to attempt a discussion on the exchange of prisoners."

Prodi, speaking at a joint press conference with Olmert, said he would raise the issue at a European Union summit this week.

Prodi has long said that small steps are needed to restart the peace process in the Middle East, and a prisoner exchange is seen by the Italian leader as one such step.

As for an encounter between Israelis and Palestinians, he said, "I hope and will apply pressure so this meeting can happen soon. Direct talks are extremely important." In talks with Olmert at the Vatican yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI praised Israel for exercising restraint in the Gaza Strip during the cease-fire that began last month.