France's Sarkozy meets Russia's Putin in Kremlin

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MOSCOW, Oct 10 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy held a second session of talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin today, and one activist said Sarkozy would later meet rights campaigners.

Sarkozy's aides did not confirm the meeting, but if it were to go ahead it would be a pointed reminder of European concerns about Russia's record on human rights.

Sarkozy's first visit to Russia as president is one of his trickiest foreign trips to date, with differences between Moscow and Paris on Iran's nuclear programme, Kosovo, Russian energy supplies to Europe and human rights.

But there were signs Sarkozy had struck up a friendly relationship with Putin. He addressed the Russian leader in the familiar ''tu'' form in opening remarks at their meeting in the Kremlin today.

Speaking late yesterday after three hours of talks at Putin's residence near Moscow, Sarkozy told reporters the two men had found some common ground on Iran and Kosovo.

''On Iran, I have the impression that our positions have firmly moved closer together,'' Sarkozy said.

''There is a very clear convergence of views on the analysis of the state of Iranian nuclear research,'' he added, without specifying how far their positions had moved closer.

Neither Putin nor his aides spoke to reporters after the talks yesterday night. He and Sarkozy are expected to give a joint news briefing at about 1030hrs IST.

France, along with other Western powers, backs a new round of United Nations sanctions on Tehran but Russia says that will be counter-productive. Western states suspect Iran is working on a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies.

Russian energy supplies to Europe are expected to be on the agenda for Sarkozy's talks and lunch with Putin today.

Russia accounts for one quarter of European gas supplies but many of its customers are worried they are over-dependent on Russia for their energy.

In an interview with a Russian newspaper before his trip, Sarkozy said past disruptions to gas supplies from Russia to Europe had damaged trust.

AWKWARD PARTNER Russian officials are concerned that Sarkozy will be a more awkward partner than Jacques Chirac, his predecessor as French leader. Sarkozy has said he wants closer ties with the United States, and has taken a tougher stance on Russia.

Speaking after his talks with Putin yesterday evening, Sarkozy told reporters that Russia's international status was growing ''and it would truly be a shame if that might be tarnished,'' by human rights issues.

Tatyana Lokshina, head of the Demos non-governmental organisation, said Sarkozy was to meet at 1730hrs IST with leading members of Memorial, a group which campaigns against rights abuses in the turbulent Chechnya region.

''There will be a meeting with Memorial,'' Lokshina told Reuters. Staff at Memorial were not answering their telephones.

On Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo, Sarkozy said Putin was not ''closed'' to a compromise that would allow for the province's status question to be resolved while addressing the sensitivities of Serbs, Sarkozy said.

Russia and Serbia oppose a Western-backed plan that would set Kosovo on the path to independence, saying it will only accept a solution that suits Belgrade.

REUTERS PD HT1445

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