Protest disrupts Blair's Lebanon press conference

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair was today confronted with Lebanese fury over his stance on Israel's attack on the country this summer.

A woman protester paraded in front of him and Lebanese Premier Fuad Siniora as they staged a joint press conference in Beirut, waving a banner and shouting: "This is an insult to the families of thousands of Lebanese who have died. Shame on you, shame on you, Mr Blair."

As security guards bundled her away, both Mr Blair and Mr Siniora appealed for calm.

The lone protest matched that of others in the streets of Beirut, with demonstrators infuriated by Mr Blair's refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire from Israel in the bloody conflict which raged in July.

Downing Street had been braced for expressions of anger and after the press conference Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We expected there would be protests, although not at the press conference."

The dramatic demonstration upstaged Mr Blair's announcement of a £40 million aid package for Lebanon, during what was always a high-risk finale to his Middle East tour.

Britain is to give £22.3 million to rebuild Lebanon's shattered infrastructure, including help with six emergency bridges needed to replace those destroyed by the Israelis, and will pump a further £20 million into funding the international stability force in the south of the country.

Mr Blair was also challenged at the press conference over reports that weapons for the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon had been transported through the UK, and challenged on whether he had "blood on his hands" because of his stance.

Mr Blair - who said the demonstration has made him feel "at home" - insisted: "There have not actually been transport of weapons for any means, but that's not really the point.

"The point is this. You have just seen a demonstration by somebody who's opposed to my visit and opposed to my policy. The most important thing we believed throughout the entirety of the crisis was to work to get a United Nations resolution which was the only possibility of stopping the conflict."

Mr Blair went on: "The most important thing for the future is we stand with you and rebuild, but we won't be able to do that unless we deal with the root causes of what's happened.

"The reason I wanted to come here is not because I'm unaware that there are people who deeply object to the policies we have - I wanted to hear from the Prime Minister how we can help for the future."

Hezbollah members of Mr Siniora's administration - who reject the state of Israel - had already boycotted today's talks with Mr Blair.

But challenged once more during the press conference on his stance, the Prime Minister said: "Let me again express my condolences to those who lost their lives and those in Israel too.

"If we end up with the solution for Israel and Palestine, there will be two signatures on the final status agreement.

"One will be Palestinian and the other will be Israeli and therefore we are not going to resolve this conflict except on a just basis, which means two states living side by side and by accepting that each state has the right to exist."

Asked again if he felt shame for his stance, Mr Blair insisted: "There never was going to be a cessation unless it was done on the basis of a UN resolution. That's the reality, that's what I worked for throughout.

"I have got used to demonstrations in my country and elsewhere so I suppose demonstrations here kind of make me feel at home."

Challenged whether he had "blood on his hands", Mr Blair replied: "In the end you have got to make a judgment on this. It's a great sign of democracy that you have people with a different point of view."

But he went on: "Things we want to achieve can't be achieved without America and Israel."

Mr Blair added: "Feelings run high, of course feelings run high. Innocent people have lost their lives here.

"This country that was on its way to being a model for the region has been set back many years - of course feelings run high.

"But what can we do? This conflict was never going to end without a UN resolution.

"In the end I'm here to get things done. I believe there is a way out of the problems of the Middle East but it can only be done if we are prepared to put in the political work and commitment to get a resolution of the underlying issues.

"If we don't do that, as people here know better than any other people in the region, then conflict will come again and innocent people will be its victims."

Mr Siniora said: "Let's look at the future. Let's see what we can do. Mr Blair can play a role."

British sources said later that the protester was believed to be an Irish aid agency worker.

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