Russia said Friday it plans to write off about $700 million in debt owed by the poorest countries _ a move reflecting its soaring oil-fueled wealth and a desire for equal footing with the world's top industrialized nations.
Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin made the statement on the eve of a meeting of Group of Eight finance ministers, saying that helping impoverished nations to fight diseases and get access to energy resources should be a key priority for the world's wealthiest countries.
''The released funds could be spent on the most important development programs,'' Kudrin told reporters at a joint news conference with World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz.
Kudrin also said that the G-8 finance ministers will issue a separate statement Saturday on measures to combat poverty and improve energy infrastructure in developing nations.
''Ensuring energy security and securing stable energy supply to the world is the key theme of Russia's chairmanship,'' he said.
Russia, which is chairing the G-8 for the first time, wants to flex financial muscles that have been buffed by billions of dollars in oil money flowing into its coffers at a time of record world prices. It is the world's second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year, Russia said it planned to write off $688 million in debt owed by 16 African countries, and has offered to pay back $22 billion in Soviet-era debts to the Paris Club of rich nations.
Kudrin said that Russia had already written off about $5 billion in Soviet-era debts to the poorest nations between 1997 and 2004.
The Russian minister also said Russia had reached an agreement with the World Bank to require debtor countries to use $250 million of the $700 million in debt it is writing off to combat infectious diseases, primarily malaria, and help improve energy infrastructure in African nations.
''These projects means our relationship is moving to a new level,'' Kudrin said.
Wolfowitz hailed Russia as a ''new development partner'' and underlined that the new package is important as the ''money that will save lives.''
Earlier, the international relief organization Oxfam called on the G-8 to expand debt cancellation to more countries and called on the finance ministers and leaders to make good on their pledges to boost aid in the education and health sectors.
Last year, G-8 members agreed on a $37 billion debt write-off.
Activists ''will be looking to the G-8 in 2006 to expand debt cancellation to all the countries that need it in order to combat poverty,'' Oxfam said.
Preparing the agenda for next month's summit, the ministers are also expected to discuss how the United States is dealing with its huge trade deficit and what policies other countries are pursuing to bolster domestic growth as a way of supporting U.S. exports _ and helping reduce that trade deficit.
Oil prices and energy policy are expected to dominate the ministers' discussions Saturday. Kudrin said earlier this week that they would review the effect of higher energy costs on poorer nations, as well as the role played by the World Bank and IMF.
The G-8 countries _ the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia _ have called for better data on oil production and reserves to help markets function more efficiently.
They also have urged G-8 oil producers to use their surging profits to boost global production.
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