EU ceasefire campaign marred by internal discord

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The Independent Online

European efforts to broker a ceasefire were in disarray last night with the Israeli ground offensive striking deep inside Gaza. Diplomats said that the US, which has the most influence over Israel, had not shown a "clear red light" to the Israelis, who have been deaf to ceasefire calls while they pursue their strategic aims against Hamas.

The Bush administration's stand has opened a rift with the British Government which is calling for an immediate ceasefire. "This is a very dangerous moment. This is a moment where all the hopes of the peace process are falling apart in the action that's being taken. So what we need is an immediate ceasefire," Gordon Brown said on BBC radio yesterday.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, issued a statement after Israeli ground forces entered the Gaza Strip on Saturday, saying that the "unfolding events show the urgent need for the immediate ceasefire that we have called for. The escalation of the conflict will cause alarm and dismay."

There was alarm and dismay in European ranks, however, after a spokesman for the Czech presidency of the EU issued a statement describing the Israeli land assault as "defensive, not offensive". British diplomats said that the text had not been co-ordinated in advance with the Czech Republic's EU partners.

The Czech Foreign Minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, backtracked yesterday saying that the statement had been "a misunderstanding". By last night, the Czech Republic had apologised.

The EU forged a united stance in calling for an immediate ceasefire on Tuesday, and announced the dispatch of a delegation which will travel to Israel today. But further signs of discord within the 27-nation bloc emerged as the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived in the region on a personal peace mission.

Mr Brown also conferred with Tony Blair, the envoy for the Middle East peace Quartet, who was back in the region yesterday.