Blair visits Middle East amid pressure to broker ceasefire

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will fly to the Middle East next week amid mounting international efforts to broker a fresh ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Britain has condemned the "unacceptable" loss of life caused by the Israeli strikes on Gaza.

Mr Blair, the international envoy to the Middle East, will hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials in a visit that will be dominated by the escalating conflict between the two sides.

The former prime minister, who is the envoy for the Quartet made up of the EU, Russia, United States and UN, spent yesterday contacting senior figures including the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, as international pressure for a ceasefire mounted.

Yesterday, Britain hardened its rhetoric on the Israeli attacks. Downing Street said it was "appalled" by the violence. A spokesman said: "We reiterate our call to Israel and Hamas for an immediate ceasefire to prevent further loss of innocent life.

"In his discussions today with Prime Minister Olmert and [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas, the Prime Minister has also pressed for full, unimpeded and urgent access for medical teams: a humanitarian breathing space. There is no military solution to this situation."

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, condemned the "unacceptable" loss of life. Mr Miliband used a round of interviews to step up pressure on Tel Aviv, saying the "dark and dangerous" events could fuel extremism.

Asked if the Israeli attacks could be justified, Mr Miliband said: "I think that any innocent loss of life is unacceptable and in this case there have been massive casualties, some of them civilians and some of them children. That is one reason we have called for a ceasefire.

"This is a very dangerous and dark moment, partly because of the lives lost and the humanitarian crisis that exists; partly because of the threat to the chance of the comprehensive peace that is so important for the Palestinians but also for Israel; and partly for the fuel for radicalism that can be argued by some to be the right response."

His comments were significantly more robust than the Government's initial response to the crisis in which Britain stopped short of demanding that Israel halted its bombing of Gaza.

There were angry scenes outside the Israeli embassy in London yesterday as campaigners held demonstrations to protest against the air strikes. Police clashed with demonstrators at the Kensington embassy, where hundreds of people had gathered.

Mr Blair faced calls to step up his diplomatic efforts towards brokering a ceasefire. He spent Christmas in Britain. Aides said his visit to the Middle East was a pre-arranged one. Mr Blair has visited the Middle East for a week each month since taking up the envoy's primarily economic role when he stood down as prime minister. But he has not made a trip into Gaza, postponing a visit to see a new sewage treatment works in northern Gaza last July for security reasons.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "At this crucial moment for the Middle East, Tony Blair has been conspicuous by his absence. As Middle East peace envoy he has the authority to put pressure on both sides for an immediate ceasefire. Tony Blair's efforts to improve security and the economy on the West Bank have so far produced less than modest dividends. It's time he started earning his salary."

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said the new US administration in Washington would provide an opportunity to drive forward the wider peace process.

"It is quite right for the UN Security Council to call for a ceasefire and an end to hostilities and we should all support that but that does require both sides to cease hostilities." He said the Hamas rocket attacks had prompted the Israeli air strikes.