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Russia set to end EU vegetable import ban

By Alexei Anishchuk

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Russia agreed on Friday to lift a ban on vegetable imports from the European Union if the EU provides safety guarantees, clearing the way to ending a row over a fatal outbreak of E.coli in Europe.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference after a Russia-EU summit that the EU would issue the required safety certificates later on Friday or on Saturday.

"We are happy that we have agreed that the ban on vegetables from the European Union will be lifted," Barroso said.

President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed this would happen in the "nearest future" if the safety guarantees were received. "I think this is a good result," he said after the meeting in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Moscow imposed the ban last week to prevent the spread of E.coli. Thirty people, all but one of them in Germany, have been killed by the disease. It starts with stomach bug symptoms and can develop into hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which destroys red blood cells and causes severe kidney problems.

The EU, which exported about 600 million euros ($868 million) worth of vegetables to Russia last year, had protested to Moscow and said such a broad ban was not justified by science.

EU officials have also said the ban contradicted World Trade Organization rules at a time when Moscow is trying to join the world trade body.

PROBLEMS IN RELATIONS

Both sides made clear there had been no breakthrough at negotiations on Russia's attempt to join the WTO by the end of this year. Medvedev regretted talks were dragging on but said there was a high chance of meeting this goal.

"I called upon our partners in the EU to finish the negotiations literally within a month in order to make it to the procedure of signing the documents on Russia's WTO accession by the end of the year," Medvedev told the joint news conference.

The main sticking points with the EU over Russia's WTO bid are limits on imports of EU farm goods and new car assembly rules in Russia.

Barroso and EU President Herman Van Rompuy said they had raised concerns with Medvedev about Russia's record on human rights, including the poor state of the rule of law, and called for a level playing field for foreign businesses.

The EU and Russia had mutual trade of $306.2 billion in 2010 and the EU is the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Russia is the bloc's biggest gas supplier.

But relations have often been awkward. Russian officials say Moscow has become tired of being "lectured to" on human rights and democracy, and on how to modernize its economy.

Diplomats say the EU is frustrated with the state of democracy in Russia. Relations have been scarred by Russia's war with Georgia in 2008 and its willingness to disrupt energy supplies to Europe in disputes with Ukraine.

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