Charities and religious leaders condemn Blair

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Charities, civil rights groups and Britain's leading Muslim organisation today unite in signing an open letter to Tony Blair condemning him for his failure back the United Nations' call for a ceasefire in the Middle East.

The letter underlines the widespread anger in Britain at the Prime Minister's support for US foreign policy. It claims the policy is to allow the Israeli bombing raids to continue in Lebanon until Hizbollah strongholds are destroyed.

Fourteen organisations including Amnesty; Christian Aid; the Muslim Council of Britain; Oxfam; Save the Children and the union Unison have signed the open letter to Mr Blair calling on the meeting of foreign ministers in Rome today to demand an immediate ceasefire.

Mr Blair claimed yesterday to be working behind the scenes to establish a lasting peace deal but the letter underlines the charge that he is diminishing the UK's authority in the region. It accuses the Prime Minister of reducing the impact of international calls for an immediate halt to the violence by failing to back the UN by calling for a ceasefire.

"As such, your current policy risks putting civilian lives at continued risk rather than helping to protect them," the letter says. "The present policy looks in danger of placing the UK Government in the uncomfortable position of only calling for a ceasefire once one side in the conflict has achieved its military objectives."

Those attending the meeting include Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, who yesterday made a surprise visit to Beirut; Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, and the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon and Egypt. They will be under pressure to produce a joint communiqué but it is expected to fall far short of a call for an immediate ceasefire.

British officials said that the core group would discuss proposals for a buffer zone and an international force. But there are disagreements over whether the Israeli soldiers being held hostage by Hizbollah should be freed before a ceasefire, and whether the international force should be installed while rockets are still being fired into Israeli towns.

Mr Blair failed to secure the support of Prince Saud al-Faisal, one of Britain's closest allies in the Middle East, at a meeting in Downing Street yesterday. The Saudi Foreign Minister also called for an immediate ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

The Prince said Lebanon should regain its "territorial integrity - for that to happen there must be a first step which is a ceasefire". Mr Blair hinted that the Israeli assault could continue into next weekend: "At some point in the next few days, I hope we can say very clearly what our plan is."

Sir Peter Tapsell, a veteran Tory MP, accused Mr Blair of "collusion" with President Bush in giving Israel the "go-ahead to wage unlimited war for 10 days".

He said it was "a war crime gravely reminiscent of the Nazi atrocity on the Jewish quarter of Warsaw".

Downing Street continued to insist that a lasting peace plan had to be accepted by Hizbollah and the Israelis before a ceasefire.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "There is no point shouting for a ceasefire unless you have a plan to make a ceasefire work. Frankly, we are prepared to take as much heat as necessary to get that done ... The Prime Minister has taken the judgement that it is better to roll up his sleeves up and take the heat to get the job done rather than do what people want which is to call for a ceasefire."

Compass, a think-tank closely associated with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, also condemned the Prime Minister for the first time, as signs of a serious rift developing in the Government began to emerge. Some ministers are highly critical of Mrs Beckett's failure to do more and say she should have visited the region.