MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin pressed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in phone conversations Friday for a resumption of peace talks, and praised the Israeli pullout from West Bank areas as a step in the right direction.
"The positive dynamic must be strengthened by further steps on the de-escalation and stabilization of the situation, the resumption of the peace process, the halting of extremist activities," the presidential press service quoted Putin as saying in his conversation with Sharon.
He called the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Ramallah a hopeful sign, and welcomed a U.S.-sponsored resolution adopted by the United Nations earlier this week endorsing a Palestinian state for the first time.
Speaking to Arafat, Putin said it was important "to use the developing situation to form conditions for moving toward talks on a political resolution of the Palestinian problem," the press service said.
Russia is an official co-sponsor of the Mideast peace process launched in 1991 but has played a far smaller role than the United States. Russia has sent envoys to the region frequently amid escalating violence in recent months.
Russia's Foreign Ministry welcomed the withdrawal from Ramallah, saying it was the result of international negotiations.
"The decision was ... a direct consequence of international efforts taken by a quartet of mediators from Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said. He urged immediate peace talks.
Israeli tanks pulled out of Ramallah early Friday, hours after U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni began another visit aimed at stopping Palestinian-Israeli violence. The United States has been exerting strong pressure on the Israelis to leave all areas under complete Palestinian control.