G8 unites to blame 'extremists' and calls for end of violence

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The Independent Online

Long and arduous negotiations ended last night with an unexpected display of unity by the world's eight most powerful nations over how to handle the Middle East conflict, as they called for an end to the cross-border attacks that have left more than 150 people dead in five days.

The Group of Eight, meeting in St Petersburg, issued a call for both Israel and the "extremist forces" of Hamas and Hizbollah to halt their attacks, and for an additional UN security and monitoring force to move in to keep the peace in Lebanon when the Israelis pull out.

The statement called for attacks on Israel to end "immediately", and implied that Israel is entitled to retaliate if they continue.

George Bush and Tony Blair pulled off a coup by persuading Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, and France's Jacques Chirac to sign up to a statement that blamed the violence squarely on "extremists" on the Palestinian side.

The document also avoided using the word "ceasefire", which is what the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, has pleaded for, with President Chirac's support. The US and Britain maintained that there cannot be a ceasefire which leaves Israel open to renewed attack. One concession by Mr Bush and Mr Blair is that there is no mention either of Iran and Syria, whom the two leaders identified as culprits in the Lebanon tragedy.

The document said: "The immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilise the region." In an indirect swipe at Iran and Syria, it added: "These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict. The extremists must immediately halt their attacks. It is also critical that Israel, while exercising the right to defend itself, be mindful of the strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions."

The statement then set out the conditions that have to be met to bring hope of "sustainable" peace: the release of the captured Israeli soldiers; an end to the shelling of Israel; an end to Israeli military operations including an "early" withdrawal from Gaza; and the release of the Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians held by the Israelis.

The document adds: "We would welcome an examination by the UN Security Council of the possibility of an international security/monitoring presence." The UN already has a 2,000-strong force in Lebanon.

The agreement was greeted as a triumph by British officials, who said it disproved the forecasts of those who thought the G8 too divided to come to any meaningful conclusions about the Middle East.

It followed days of conflicting statements from the participants. The Russians accused the United States and Britain of wanting to evade the subject, because of their obsession with Iran and North Korea. President Putin also accused the Israelis of using the crisis to gain a strategic advantage. "We have the impression that in addition to wanting to ensure the return of the kidnapped servicemen, Israel is pursuing a larger strategy," he said.

President Chirac arrived in St Petersburg accusing Israel of reacting disproportionately and arguing for a "ceasefire", a sharply contrasting view to that taken by Mr Bush and Mr Blair, who emerged from their bilateral meeting early yesterday to defend Israel's right to strike out in self defence and echo the Israeli claim that Hizbollah's sponsors, Iran and Syria, were also to blame for wrecking prospects of peace.

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