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Palestinian Leader Abbas Visits Chechnya

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (center) is greeted by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (left) upon arrival in Grozny.
(RFE/RL) -- Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has arrived in Russia's troubled republic of Chechnya on the first leg of a three-day visit to Russia.

Abbas landed in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the early hours of December 21. He was met at the airport by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's powerful Kremlin-backed leader, who welcomed him as "a true Muslim and a good man."

Abbas told reporters at the airport that the situation in war-battered Chechnya "has greatly improved and continues to improve."

"There are things that unite us with the Chechens, and I am watching what is happening in the republic," he added.

Kadyrov, a former separatist rebel who switched to Moscow's side, met Abbas during the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. He is seen as dedicated to the revival of the Muslim religion in Chechnya, which the Kremlin has tolerated in return for his help in quelling rebel attacks.

The southern Russian republic is now relatively peaceful after two wars between separatist rebels militants and pro-Russian forces.

Sporadic violence and abductions nonetheless continue. On December 20, a police officer and a civilian were wounded by an explosive device planted by rebels at a construction site.

Abbas was expected to tour Grozny and say prayers at Europe's largest mosque, inaugurated this year in the Chechen capital, before holding official talks with Kadyrov.

The Palestinian leader is scheduled to travel to Moscow later in the day, where he will meet December 22 with President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

He is also expected to receive Russia's Al-Fakhr Muslim award at a ceremony in Moscow.

Abbas traveled to Washington earlier this week for talks devoted to Middle East peace efforts.

Russia, a member of the diplomatic "Quartet" for Middle East peace -- which also comprises the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States -- has pursued close ties with the Palestinians, including the isolated radical group Hamas -- the rival to Abbas's Fatah party.

Russia has offered to host a Middle East peace summit in Moscow in spring 2009 as a follow-up to the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis conference in November 2007.