MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin sought on Thursday to scotch fears that a wave of anti-Semitism could sweep Russia under his rule, making a high-profile visit to a Jewish centre celebrating Judaism's Hanukkah holiday.
Prominent Jewish groups earlier this month accused the Kremlin of doing nothing to end attacks on Jewish targets in a country they said had a history of anti-Semitism.
And the prosecution of media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, a sharp Putin critic and leading figure in the Jewish community, heightened concerns in some quarters. Gusinsky is currently in a Spanish jail fighting extradition to Russian on fraud charges.
But during a stay of more than two hours at a Jewish centre, Putin sought to boost his ties with the community, accepting a menorah, the traditional eight-branch candlestick used during the eight days of Hanukkah.
''And I want to promise you that the light and the kindness that this (menorah) will radiate will always illuminate the Kremlin,'' Putin told the audience of hundreds.
Putin won backing from local Jewish leaders and an influential guest -- former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on a private visit to Russia.
''If you want powerful evidence of the change that has happened in Russia, then come here tonight, see what is happening here tonight,'' Netanyahu said.
''Today the president of Russia is coming here, in a new Jewish community centre, and is lighting the first candle of our ancient holiday, Hanukkah.
''This is change, big change, positive change, powerful change,'' he said.
Avraham Berkowitz, executive secretary of the Federation of Jewish Organisations in the former Soviet Union, was elated by Putin's attendance.
''The fact that the president shared this holiday with us is a very good sign for the future of Jewish communities in this country,'' he told Reuters.
''One cannot imagine a Russian leader attending such a holiday in the past. This is really a Hanukkah miracle,'' he added.
Hanukkah, or the feast of lights, commemorates the rededication of the second temple of Jerusalem in 164 BC after its desecration on the orders of the king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Some Jewish leaders in Russia this month called for tougher government action after a Jewish official was beaten near the offices of a newly-elected regional governor who hit the headlines with controversial remarks about Jews.
They said the attacks threatened to damage the country's image abroad with foreign partners. Putin has ordered an investigation into the beating.
In tsarist Russia, Jews were confined in ghettos and subject to frequent pogroms. In Soviet times, hundreds of thousands left the country having been barred from sensitive jobs and some universities.
Netanyahu, who polls say would defeat incumbent Ehud Barak if he contested a February 6 election for the premiership, used his brief address at the Moscow Jewish centre to hail warming Russian-Israeli ties.
He said the two states shared a common danger -- attack from extremists -- and vowed Israel would do all in its power to help Russia fight terrorism.
''The centre of your threat is 2,500 kilometres from Moscow. The centre of our threat is 250 metres from our capital Jerusalem,'' he said.
''The first rule in fighting terrorism is to fight it. Not to surrender to it, but to fight it,'' he added.
Moscow has portrayed its war in Chechnya, now it its 15th month, as a crackdown on terrorists who it says bombed apartment blocks in Russian cities in September 1999, killing more than 300 people.