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Praising the newly elected Russian President for his "genuine commitment to economic reform," President Bill Clinton pledged yesterday to work with Vladimir Putin, no matter what their personal relations.

Mr. Clinton said he hopes to develop a friendly rapport with the former Soviet KGB operative who was elected President last Sunday, but added that relations between the two countries are more important.

"The United States and Russia have vast national interests that require them to work together and manage the difficulties," he said during a wide-ranging White House news conference.

Mr. Clinton, in the final year of his second term, also predicted that the information revolution wrought by the Internet will force a new era of openness and freedom in China.

He said Beijing's Communist leadership will "not be able to control the Internet, they will not be able to control access to information, they will not be able to control freedom of expression [and China]will become a more free country and a more open country."

Mr. Clinton urged members of Congress who are opposed to allowing China to join the World Trade Organization to shelve their reservations, because membership in the international trading group will also push Beijing to make further reforms.

On other international issues, Mr. Clinton urged Israel and Syria to resume peace talks despite his failure last weekend to persuade Syrian President Hafez Assad to reopen talks over the return of the Golan Heights.

However, the U.S. President, who is under increasing pressure over continuing U.S. peacekeeping deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo, said there have been no discussions about the possibility of stationing U.S. troops in the Golan Heights. On domestic issues, Mr. Clinton ducked questions about the lingering controversy over his impeachment in connection with his relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Only hours before his news conference, a federal judge ruled that Mr. Clinton "committed a criminal violation of the Privacy Act" by releasing personal letters to undermine the credibility of one of his accusers, Kathleen Willey. A violation of the Privacy Act is a misdemeanour. The judge's ruling could open to the door to a lawsuit by Ms. Willey.

She had alleged that Mr. Clinton made unwelcome sexual advances to her but the White House denied the charge; in the middle of the Lewinsky scandal, it released letters from Ms. Willey to the President, written after the alleged advances, that showed her still on friendly terms with him.

The White House will appeal.

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