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(AFP) - The leaders of former Soviet republics grouped as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) were Friday to sign an accord to create an ambitious free-trade zone that would attempt to meet World Trade Organization norms.

"It is our main task to complete the setting up of a free-trade zone without privileges or restrictions within the framework of the CIS," Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma said. "To do this we must fix the last details about restrictions and the signing of an agenda regarding their elimination in line with WTO norms," he said.

Russia, the most powerful CIS member, has voiced reticence over the formation of a fully unrestricted free-trade zone that experts say could lead to sharp oil and gas price increases on its
territory. The accord was to be signed during the second and final day of a CIS summit here.

Leaders from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan gathered in the Crimean city of Yalta's historic Livadia Palace to put flesh on the bones of an accord that they agreed on at an informal CIS summit in Saint Petersburg in May.

CIS member Turkmenistan has snubbed the initiative and is not attending the Yalta meeting. Azerbaijan's ailing president Heydar Aliev, currently receiving treatment at a US hospital, is represented by his son Ilham, who is also the Azeri prime minister.

Under a draft text, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency, the free-trade zone would set off "a gradual advance towards a common economic space" among the former Soviet republics. Separately, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine on Friday signed an agreement to create a common economic space.

The pact, which has to be ratified by the nations' parliaments before taking effect, is being seen as a first step towards creating a common market, although experts have warned that it will take from five to seven years to set in place. Ukrainian, US and EU officials have criticized the pact, saying it could hurt Kiev's efforts to join the European Union and the WTO.

Russia President Vladimir Putin however stressed Thursday that the scheme was be "in the national interests" of all four countries involved.

In a separate development, Putin implicitly endorsed Azerbaijan's ruling regime ahead of next month's presidential elections in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. He congratulated Ilham Aliev on being appointed prime minister last month.

"I am sure that this is the right choice," Putin said as the two met on the sidelines of the Yalta summit.


(Itar-Tass/Photolur photo:Armenian President Robert Kocharian tastes traditional "bread-and-salt" upon his arrival to Simferopol airport in Crimea, Ukraine on Thursday.)
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