MOSCOW – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paused Saturday during a visit to Russia for talks on North Korea and Iran to make a pointed tribute to a prominent dissident journalist who was killed this month under suspicious circumstances.

The Oct. 7 slaying of Anna Politkovskaya, 48, a special correspondent for the independent weekly Novaya Gazeta, has focused fresh attention on restraints on press freedom in Russia and stirred suspicions of official involvement in the shooting.

An outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Politkovskaya frequently journeyed to the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya and documented human-rights abuses committed there by Russian soldiers. She was shot in her apartment building – with a second bullet to the head, a signature of contract killings – as she was finishing an article on torturers in the pro-Kremlin government of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

Putin’s response provoked criticism as he initially remained silent for three days and then responded to a reporter’s question on the incident by belittling her work, calling her influence “utterly insignificant.” Kadyrov has declared his innocence, saying on national television, “I did not kill women and I never kill them.”

In Russia for meetings with government leaders, Rice invited the journalist’s son and editors of Novaya Gazeta to her hotel for an interview and used the occasion to mark the journalist’s murder.

Her remarks were embargoed until Monday, when the weekly journal is published. But, speaking to reporters earlier in the day on her flight from Beijing to Moscow, Rice praised Politkovskaya as “a well-known and well-respected journalist.”

“Novaya Gazeta is also one of the best independent voices in Russia, and there is still an independent print press,” Rice said. “Unfortunately there is not much left of independent television in Russia.”

Journalists in Russia have been under increasing pressure in recent years, and the country is now one of the world’s more dangerous for reporters. Since 2000, at least 12 journalists have been victims of contract-style killings, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Rice spoke with Politkovskaya’s son, Ilya Politkovskaya, and Novaya Gazeta editors shortly before she met with Putin.

She said in advance that she planned to include human-rights issues among her concerns during a whirlwind of meetings with Russian officials. She also said she would focus on enforcement of United Nations sanctions against North Korea for its Oct. 9 nuclear test, efforts to impose sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and a simmering conflict between Russia and neighboring Georgia.

The one-day visit is the final stop in Rice’s four-nation tour of North Korea’s neighbors in response to that country’s recent nuclear weapons test.

A State Department official said Russian leaders had indicated they would enforce the international sanctions against North Korea. “I think it’s clear they take it seriously,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In an interview with the Kuwaiti News Agency KUNA shortly before Rice began her talks, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was ready to discuss ways of using international pressure to get Iran to accept greater oversight of its nuclear program but would resist UN sanctions against Iran.

“We won’t be able to support and will oppose any attempts to use the Security Council to punish Iran or use Iran’s program in order to promote the ideas of regime change there,” Lavrov said in the interview, which was posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Web site Saturday.

Russia has veto power on the UN Security Council.

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-21-06 1841EDT

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