By Andrew Osborn
(Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin warned on Wednesday that Israel's conflict with Hamas could spread well beyond the Middle East and said it was wrong that innocent women, children and old people in Gaza were being punished for other people's crimes.
Putin, who made the comments in a Kremlin meeting with Russian religious leaders of different faiths, said bloodshed in the region had to stop. He said he told other world leaders in phone calls that if it did not, there was a risk of a much wider conflagration.
"Our task today, our main task, is to stop the bloodshed and violence," said Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript of the meeting.
"Otherwise, further escalation of the crisis is fraught with grave and extremely dangerous and destructive consequences. And not only for the Middle East region. It could spill over far beyond the borders of the Middle East."
In remarks that criticised the West, he said that certain unnamed forces were seeking to provoke further escalation and to draw as many other countries and peoples into the conflict as possible.
The aim, he said, was to "launch a real wave of chaos and mutual hatred not only in the Middle East but also far beyond its borders. For this purpose, among other things, they are trying to play on the national and religious feelings of millions of people."
Putin conveyed his condolences to the families of Israelis and citizens of other countries who were killed or wounded by Hamas in its bloody Oct. 7 attack.
Moscow, he said, continued to advocate for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, something he said was the only way to reach a long-term settlement.
He made it clear though that he thought Israel was wrong to keep bombing Gaza in retaliation for the slaughter and hostage-taking of Israeli citizens by Hamas.
"It is also clear to us that innocent people should not be held responsible for crimes committed by others," said Putin.
"The fight against terrorism cannot be conducted according to the notorious principle of collective responsibility when old people, women, children, entire families and hundreds of thousands of people are left without shelter, food, water, electricity and medical care."
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)