Blair summons Europeans for 'council of war'

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair summoned the leaders of six European nations to Downing Street last night for urgent talks on the next steps in the US-led campaign against terrorism.

The Prime Minister held what amounted to a council of war with the leaders of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, fuelling speculation about an extension of the military campaign.

The meeting came as the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, ruled out any pause in the air strikes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, appealed yesterday for a pause in the air strikes during Ramadan, which begins on 17 November, warning of "a huge negative fall-out".

But Mr Rumsfeld, in Pakistan as part of a whirlwind four-day tour of Afghanistan's neighbours, said four weeks of American bombing had undermined the Taliban to the point where they had virtually ceased to govern.

In Washington, the Pentagon said more special forces had moved into Afghanistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, said "a couple more teams" had been deployed in Afghanistan to help anti-Taliban forces. "We'll continue to resupply [the opposition] right through the winter. We think they have every chance of prevailing."

In Afghanistan's northern Takhar province US jets and B-52 bombers roared over Northern Alliance encampments before dropping bombs on Taliban front lines. But the Taliban insisted they had recaptured territory lost earlier to the Northern Alliance. They said they had advanced 43 miles south of the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which the opposition is struggling to capture.

In London, Mr Blair hosted a dinner for the French President, Jacques Chirac, and Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi and the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. The importance of the meeting was underlined as the five leaders were joined at the last minute by Wim Kok, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium, which currently holds the presidency of the EU, and Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign affairs representative.

Downing Street said the meeting had been called to share experience and information after Mr Blair's tour of the Middle East and Chancellor Schröder's mission to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin last week.

Last night's meeting was described by a Number 10 spokesman as a "useful opportunity for the leaders to get an overview of the situation".