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Ahmadinejad delays Russia visit after election

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delayed attending a regional security summit in Russia on Monday after protests against his contested re-election.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks on during his first news conference after the presidential elections in Tehran June 14, 2009. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Ahmadinejad has faced demonstrations and clashes in the streets since Saturday, when officials announced his landslide victory in the election on Friday against a moderate opponent.

He had been due to arrive in Russia on Monday for separate meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Iran has observer status.

“The president will definitely not come today,” said a diplomatic source at the Iranian embassy who asked not to be named. The source said it was unclear why the visit had been delayed but added that Ahmadinejad would arrive on Tuesday.

A Russian official who also asked not to be named said the visit had been delayed until Tuesday and added that Ahmadinejad still planned to speak to reporters. The Kremlin declined immediate comment.

The president of Iran, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, has often stolen the limelight at major conferences, including an SCO meeting in Shanghai in 2006 that was dominated by news about Tehran’s nuclear program.

The SCO groups Russia and China and four ex-Soviet Central Asia republics.

The leaders of India and Pakistan plan to meet on the sidelines of the summit in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, their first such meeting since last November’s attack on Mumbai, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told APP.

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A meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari could help break the ice between the two nuclear-armed powers.

“The two leaders will have a one-on-one meeting,” Qureshi told APP in Yekaterinburg. “It is an important meeting between two important leaders in the region.”

“When two national leaders meet, time is of no significance,” he said when asked about how long the two leaders would meet for. An official who is helping to organize summit meetings told Reuters the meeting would take place on Tuesday.

Pakistan is keen to resume a peace process broken off by India after the attacks on Mumbai, blamed by New Delhi on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

Analysts will be closely watching for any sign that Singh is willing to reopen formal peace talks, or whether he will insist, as India has done so far, that Pakistan first takes further action against Pakistan-based militants.

After talks, Medvedev hosted an informal dinner for SCO leaders, Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. A fuller meeting of SCO leaders and observer countries will take place on Tuesday.

Washington is pushing for an easing of tensions between India and Pakistan so Islamabad can channel its energies into fighting Taliban militants on its border with Afghanistan.

Besides Russia and China, the SCO groups the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

In addition to Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan and India have observer status. Afghanistan’s Karzai has been invited as a guest as discussions about the situation in Afghanistan is likely to be top themes at meetings.

Russia initially backed a U.S.-led military operation launched in 2001 to remove Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers.

But Moscow has criticized Washington for its conduct in Afghanistan and Russian ally Kyrgyzstan has ordered the United States to leave an air base it was renting to supply troops in Afghanistan.

Diplomats say Moscow wants to make the United States dependent on an Afghan supply route through Russia, thereby increasing the Kremlin’s leverage over Washington.

Officials said North Korea was also likely to be a major theme. Pyongyang has raised tensions by test-firing missiles, restarting a plant to produce weapons-grade plutonium and holding a nuclear test on May 25.

Additional reporting by Conor Sweeney, Chris Buckley, Gleb Bryanski and Natalya Shurmina in Yekaterinburg and Myra MacDonald in London; Editing by Jon Hemming