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Putin takes Africa diplomacy drive to Morocco

President Vladimir Putin visited Russia’s main African trading partner, Morocco, on Thursday, seeking to widen his sphere of political influence on the continent beyond Moscow’s traditional Cold War allies.

The visit, the first by a Russian head of state since Leonid Brezhnev 45 years ago, followed a two-day trip to South Africa where Putin pledged billions of dollars of investment.

Analysts said Putin’s appearance was aimed at improving ties with a kingdom that leaned towards the West during the Cold War, and pushing Russian diplomacy beyond the usual circuit of Soviet-era friends.

”Putin is anxious to demonstrate that his Russia is a global player that is increasingly important on the world stage,” said George Joffe, of Cambridge University’s Centre of International Studies.

Arriving at the Royal Palace in Casablanca on Thursday, Putin was given a 21-gun salute and red-carpet welcome by King Mohammed.

Later the two heads of state witnessed the signature of cooperation agreements covering areas such as justice, fisheries, tourism, culture, agriculture and banking.

Russia has an interest in building on a phase of warming relations with Morocco that began four years ago when King Mohammed visited Moscow.

It is a key buyer of a staple Moroccan export — phosphates — and Morocco’s rich coastal waters are open to Russian fishing boats while remaining off-limits to European trawlers.

Newspapers reported that Russia was interested in building a nuclear power station in Morocco and that a delegation from Morocco’s state power company, ONE, had visited Moscow late last month to meet managers of nuclear energy agency Rosatom.

Russia says Morocco is its main trading partner in Africa, with two-way sales totalling $1,5-billion last year. But Algeria — Morocco’s rival in the Maghreb and Africa — is Russia’s leading military client on the continent.

Alarm bells sounded in Rabat last March when Putin visited Algiers and officials announced that Russia would sell $7,5-billion of combat planes, air-defence systems and other arms from Moscow in exchange for a debt write-off.

Analysts said Putin’s Morocco visit was aimed partly at showing that, despite the arms sale, Russia remains even-handed in its treatment of Morocco and Algeria. — Reuters

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