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Blair wins Putin's support on African debt relief

Calls it 'good omen' for Scotland summit

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia -- Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain won Russia's support yesterday for his initiatives to write off all debt to African countries and reduce global warming, proposals to be presented at a Group of Eight summit.

Beginning a European trip to push the plan, Blair said the weekend agreement by finance ministers of the leading industrial nations to scrap $40 billion in debt owed by the world's poorest countries was a ''good omen" for the July 6-8 summit in Scotland.

''I think there is a real prospect of progress on Africa and on climate change," Blair said after talks with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at his residence outside Moscow.

In Washington yesterday, President Bush said the United States would speed up delivery of funding to poor countries, including African nations. He made the pledge after meeting with African leaders, who have complained that one of his signature aid projects was rife with red tape.

At a news conference after his meeting with Blair, Putin offered broad backing for the prime minister's initiatives, including forgiving African debt and cutting greenhouse gases. Russia has already ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

''We fully support the ideas of the British leadership and in particular of the prime minister . . . for the upcoming summit," Putin said.

Blair has made action on climate change a priority for the G-8 summit. Bush opposes the Kyoto Protocol, and the US administration questions scientists' views that man-made pollutants are causing temperatures to rise.

Putin and Blair did not discuss African debt in detail at the news conference. But Russia's finance minister indicated in comments broadcast Sunday that Russia is ready to forgive African debt left over from the Soviet era, saying it could not be paid back for years anyway.

G-8 finance ministers agreed Saturday to immediately wipe out all debt that 18 countries, many in sub-Saharan Africa, owe to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank.

Eager to join world economic groups and earn respect in the West, Russia has already agreed to write off billions of dollars in Iraqi debt. ''I would like to point out that in absolute figures concerning the volume of write-off of debts, Russia ranks third after Japan and France," Putin said.

On global warming, Blair said there was growing support for the idea that economies should be allowed to grow ''in an environmentally friendly way."

Russia signed on to the Kyoto Protocol in November, but only after public wrangling in the government over whether it would hamper Putin's push to double the size of Russia's economy in a decade. ''That was not an easy process," Putin said. ''It is important for us to know how it will be followed up in practice" and to ''work with those countries that did not accede."

When Bush met with presidents of five African nations at the White House yesterday, they said that bureaucracy and fine print make it nearly impossible to access the aid under the Millennium Challenge Account he unveiled in March 2002.

Under that program, countries are eligible for the proposed $5 billion in aid only if they were committed to democratic, economic, and human rights reforms. The idea was that little good comes from pouring aid into a country that has corrupt or unstable leadership, but US dollars can encourage good governance.

His plan was slow to get off the ground, and Congress has not been willing to give him the funding that he wants. He has received $2.5 billion over the last two years -- $1.3 billion less than he has requested -- and compacts have been approved for just four countries.

Bush invited the presidents of Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia, and Niger to the White House because all five won democratic elections last year. He said they are an example to neighboring nations and said debt relief and liberalized trade can help spread freedom on the troubled continent.

''I assured the leaders we will work harder and faster to certify countries for the MCA," Bush said.

Bush also said the United States was helping Africans by working with others in the G-8 to eliminate debt owed by the world's poorest nations, including 14 in Africa.

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