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Iranian president ends landmark visit with papal meeting

VATICAN CITY, March 11 (AFP) - Iranian President Mohammad Khatami held 25-minute talks here on Thursday with Pope John Paul II on the final day of a landmark visit to Italy.

The pope called the occasion "important and promising" while Khatami appealed for "the victory of peace and reconciliation."

The pope personally welcomed Khatami on the threshold of the Vatican's private library. Before their talks started, Khatami joked with the pope and introduced his delegation. In Farsi, he told Iranian photograhpers "not to upset the pope."

About 50 Iranian dissidents demonstrated near Saint Peter's Square, shouting "Khatami terrorist" as the president arrived at the Vatican amid a heavy police guard.

The demonstrators were from the Iranian opposition movement National Resistance Council - People's Mujahedeen.

The meeting with the pope concluded Khatami's visit to Italy, the first by an Iranian leader to western Europe since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

On Wednesday, he spoke in favour of democracy worldwide and an end to terrorism after an hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, as protests continued to mar his visit.

On Thursday Khatami called for dialogue with the United States "on equal terms," in an interview published in the daily Republicca.

"In the field of sport and culture we have had numerous exchanges with the US but as far as inter-government relations are concerned, we shall never submit to force," said Khatami.

"The Iranian nation has fallen victim to mistaken US policies within the country and in the Middle East," Khatami said, accusing Washington of trying to drag Iran "before some sort of world court."

He went on: "No! Dialogue must be based on equal terms and mutual respect.

Over the past 50 years the US has had an unequal dialogue with Iran. This situation must change. There must be reparations for the damage caused to Iran," Khatami said, citing the US oil embargo against his country. "The United States must carry out an in-depth review of their attitude and make a fresh start for a healthy relationship with today's world, a free world which wants its independence and its autonomy."

The president said he was "deeply disappointed" that a visit to Italy by British Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie had coincided with his own, but repeated that the Iranian government would do nothing to implement Tehran's 1989 death sentence on the author for blasphemy.

Rushdie was awarded an honorary degree Wednesday by the University of Turin.

In Tehran, the press said that Rushdie's presence was an intentional insult. "One cannot but reach the conclusion that at least some officials of the Italian government fully intended to insult our president, our nation and our religious beliefs," said the English-language Iran News.

Khatami also condemned the American and British bombing campaign against Iraq although he said that Iraq should abide by United Nations Security Council resolutions.

"The presence of foreign troops in the Persian Gulf is a source of instability and danger for the region," the Iranian leader said. Earlier Khatami breakfasted with Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini who said that Italian business was "greatly interested" in Iran.

He said Italy was Iran's second supplier after Germany and its second customer after Japan, adding that trade between the two countries was worth 2.6 billion dollars in 1997.

Since Tuesday, when Khatami arrived in Italy, officials of the state oil company ENI have held talks with the Iranian delegation.

On March 1, ENI, along with French oil company ELF signed a 540 million dollar contract to boost production from an offshore oil field in the northern Gulf.


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