Blair's 9,000-mile transatlantic dash cements coalition

Terror in America: Diplomacy
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The Independent US

It was Tony Blair's longest day and, perhaps, the most momentous of his life. Yesterday and today merged into one marathon round of shuttle diplomacy as the Prime Minister flew from Europe to the United States and back again, without even staying the night, in the hope of cementing a powerful international coalition against terrorism.

After only 10 hours on American soil, where he held talks with President George Bush, Mr Blair returned to Europe last night so he could report back to an emergency meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels tonight. By the time he returns to Downing Street at about midnight tonight, Mr Blair will have clocked up more than 9,000 miles since departing for Berlin on Wednesday.

After six hours' sleep at the British embassy in Paris Mr Blair held a breakfast meeting at the Elysée Palace yesterday with the French President, Jacques Chirac.

Asked directly whether Britain and France would join any military response to the attacks in America, Mr Chirac said: "I can't see how France and Britain would not be involved if it was appropriate."

Mr Blair said: "I agree entirely with that. The question of the precise response is a matter under discussion at the present time."

The two leaders' talks followed Mr Chirac's return from Washington where he had a detailed briefing from President Bush as America began to deploy its forces across the Middle East.

There was little respite during Mr Blair's seven-hour flight from Paris to New York on a chartered British Airways Boeing 777. Mr Blair, in a short-sleeved shirt, scribbled away as he mapped out his proposed strategy for the difficult days and weeks that lay ahead.

During his flight, there were meetings with his advisers, a series of media interviews and telephone calls via a satellite link with Mohammad Khatami, the President of Iran, and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the Nato secretary general.

Of his conversation with President Khatami, Mr Blair said: "It was a conversation I could not have imagined having some weeks ago.

"Not simply did he give his full solidarity in terms of what had happened to the USA and his strong condemnation of terrorism, but also said how important it was that out of that we rebuild the relationship between our two countries as well."

A Downing Street spokesman said the Prime Minister had previously written to the Iranian leader, but they had never spoken before yesterday.

Although the Prime Minister's mood on his flight to America was sombre, he was buoyed up by the strong support he has received from other world leaders.

He believed there was a real prospect of forging international co-operation way beyond anything that could have been imagined two weeks ago.

But there was no escaping the awful tragedy which had created such an unlikely coalition. Mr Blair's wife, Cherie, and the Prime Minister's female aides were all dressed in black in preparation for the memorial service in New York for victims of the attacks.

After the service, where Mr Blair read a passage from Thornton Wilder's book The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which deals with the deaths of five people after a bridge collapse, he met British families whose relatives were still missing.

He then squeezed in a meeting with Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general and former US president Bill Clinton.

As Mr Blair headed to Washington, Mrs Blair stayed on in New York to meet other British families and returned directly to London last night.

In Washington Mr Blair was whisked straight to the White House for talks, a joint press conference and then dinner with President Bush. His constantly changing schedule was amended to include a trip to Capitol Hill where he met congressional leaders and watched the President's address to both Houses of Congress.