Portillo backs air blitz as EU leaders ponder response

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The Independent Online
Michael Portillo, the Defence Secretary, yesterday gave his backing to Israel's air and artillery blitz in Lebanon as European governments struggled to find a common response to the bloodshed.

Mr Portillo, who began a long-scheduled visit to Israel yesterday, placed the entire blame for the civilian exodus from southern Lebanon on Hizbollah, which, he said, had fired its rockets at northern Israel from the heart of civilian areas.

"It is the right of every country to have security and defend herself..." Mr Portillo said. "I don't believe that Israel wishes to kill any civilians and for that reason civilians have been withdrawing for their own security.

"We rely upon Israel to gauge the extent of her reaction and we know that it is Israel's intention to resume the peace process when she can."

However, a more cautious statement from the Foreign Office contrasted, in tone if not in substance, with Mr Portillo's remarks and called on both sides to "break the cycle of violence". The statement expressed "concern" at the "growing humanitarian problems" of the tens of thousands of civilians forced to flee. The Director of Middle East Affairs at the Foreign Office, John Shepherd, flew to Beirut for talks yesterday.

There was thinly disguised irritation in EU capitals yesterday after France began an apparently doomed attempt to broker a ceasefire single- handedly by dispatching its Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, to Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

Senior foreign ministry officials from the 15 EU countries were meeting in Brussels yesterday to try to prepare some kind of common statement or initiative for a meeting of European foreign ministers in Luxembourg next week.

One EU diplomat told Reuters that the unilateral French action would "go down like a lead balloon, not because of any jealousies but because the French move is hollow. There's nothing in it".

The French intervention received a similarly discouraging response in Israel itself.

Asked by journalists what his conditions might be to end the five-day rocket and artillery bombardment of Lebanon, the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, declared: "It is too early to negotiate."

Some French commentators also criticised their government's decision to go it alone.

The Liberation newspaper said that it was prompted not by any genuine hope of doing good, but by embarrassment that Israel - a close ally of France - had launched the bombardment one week after President Jacques Chirac had proclaimed his support for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, a former French protectorate.

The US response to the fighting remains low-key, with the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, telephoning his Syrian counterpart, Farouq al-Sharaa, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Ehud Barak, and Lebanese leaders. But President Clinton, engaged in a round-the-world tour, has shown no sign of willingness to dispatch Mr Christopher or another senior official to the region.

The White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, said: "Obviously our goal is to see what steps can be taken now to restore calm to the border and to minimise the violence." Washington blames Hizbollah for the renewed fighting.