Barak receives a warm welcome from Yeltsin in first Moscow visit

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MOSCOW — Top Russian officials extended Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's honeymoon during his 24-hour trip early this week.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin's first public condemnation of the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks there dominated the visit, as did the transfer of Russian missile technology to Iran and Russia's desire to play a more prominent role in the Mideast.

Barak's meetings on Monday, which included talks with Yeltsin, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, also touched on Russia's interest in Israeli technology and goods.

But just as important as the subjects discussed was the tone of the Russian reception, which had grown more positive since the defeat of Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Russian media have noted that the Kremlin views Barak more warmly than Netanyahu. And on Monday, Russian leaders told Barak that his victory opened the door to a compromise in the Middle East peace process.

Russian media reports stressed the importance of Barak's visit, and Yeltsin officially received Barak, an honor never bestowed on Netanyahu.

Along with the United States, Russia is a co-sponsor of the peace process started in Madrid in 1991. However, internal economic problems and tensions with Israel have diminished its role.

This year, however, Russia has dramatically increased its political activity in the region. Barak's visit, which included a dinner with Russian Jewish leaders sponsored by the Russian Jewish Congress, was the fourth official trip to Moscow by a high-ranking Israeli delegation this year. Russia also hosted Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in April and Syrian President Hafez Assad in July.

The talks between Barak and Yeltsin lasted longer than protocol required, according to a Kremlin spokesman.

Despite the good feelings, differences do remain between the two countries.

These differences include Russia's arms transfers to Iran and Russian cooperation with Tehran and Baghdad in the areas of ballistic and nuclear weapons.

Russia has repeatedly denied it violated any international non-proliferation treaties, but Stepashin vowed to cooperate with Israel on the nuclear weapons issue.

"It is not in Russian interests to let any country, including Iran, to get possession of nuclear arms," Stepashin said.

He promised to investigate all possible leaks of technologies to Iran.

In his meetings, Barak appealed to the Russian leadership to combat the recent rise in anti-Semitic violence.

After this part of the talks, which were closed to the media, Yeltsin's aide on foreign affairs, Sergei Prikhodko, told reporters that Yeltsin condemned the recent attacks and vowed that "those responsible in all sorts of actions would be found and punished in accordance with Russian legislation."

Barak also touched on an issue that had previously escaped media attention — the fate of several Israelis kidnapped recently in Russia's troubled northern Caucasus region.

Barak did not specify how many such cases are known to Israeli officials.

On the eve of the visit, Russian media reported one such case. Laura Likhtman, an 18-year-old Israeli citizen, was kidnapped in the city of Nalchik, according to the Israeli Embassy in Moscow. Her kidnappers are demanding $500,000 in ransom.

The northern Caucasus has seen a wave of kidnappings since the 21-month war between Russian authorities and the breakaway republic of Chechnya ended in 1996.

Most of the kidnappings that occur in the region are apparently carried out for ransom by rival clans and outlaw groups that have turned hostage-taking into something of a sport.

During his visit Barak also met with the parents of Nikolai Rappaport, a Russian immigrant soldier killed last year in Israel's security zone in Lebanon.

Rappaport could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel because while his father is Jewish, his mother is not.

The family later returned to the southern Russian city of Krasnodar, where Rappaport was buried.

In a message apparently aimed at Israel's Russian community, which largely supported him in the May elections, Barak promised that such a situation would never be repeated.