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Russians, Saudis to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts

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MOSCOW — Russian and Saudi officials agreed Wednesday to coordinate their anti-terrorism efforts as part of a landmark visit to Moscow by the Arab kingdom's leader.

Moscow has said Saudi charities have provided financial support to Chechen separatists, whose cause is seen by many Islamic fundamentalists as a fight to free a Muslim people, but who are considered terrorists by the Russian government.

The Kremlin has maintained that the Chechen gunmen who seized a Moscow theater last October made calls to Saudi Arabia during the siege.

"The international community faces international threats and challenges such as terrorism, and we must cooperate closely to resolve these problems," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at the start of Wednesday's talks with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Ivanov later told reporters that he and al-Faisal had agreed to set up a bilateral working group that would coordinate action against terrorism.

Al-Faisal is one of several top Saudi officials who accompanied Crown Prince Abdullah to Moscow. Abdullah, who is his country's de facto leader, is the first Saudi official of his rank to visit Moscow in more than 70 years.

Riyadh has faced widespread international criticism for failing to control terrorist organizations allegedly operating in Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens.

While carefully prodding the sensitive terrorism issue, the Kremlin has sought to build warmer ties with Saudi Arabia. President Vladimir Putin hosted the crown prince during Tuesday's Kremlin talks that covered regional crises and situation in the global oil market.

Russia is the world's second largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia, and the two nations signed an agreement Tuesday on cooperation in the oil and gas industry. The five-year deal called for "strengthening bilateral cooperation with the goal of ensuring stability in the global oil market" — phrasing that may suggest consorted action on production volume and prices. The agreement also envisaged joint ventures in oil and gas exploration.

During their talks, Russian and Saudi officials also addressed the situation in Iraq and the Middle East peace progress. Riyadh hopes the visit will strengthen Russia's support for Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian issue.

Ivanov and al-Faisal on Wednesday both spoke in favor of sending international disengagement forces into the zone of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russia is a member of the so-called Quartet — which also includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations — that drafted the "road map" plan for Middle East peace.

With Muslims making up about 20 million of Russia's 145-million population, Putin has expressed a desire to see Russia become an observer nation in the Organization of Islamic Conference, a grouping of Muslim-majority countries. The issue was expected to be discussed during Abdullah's visit.