First Published: 2006-07-19

Blair refuses to call for Israel ceasefire

British PM in cold as fellow EU leaders call on Israel to halt its deadly onslaught on Lebanon.


Middle East Online

Beirut in smoke

LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused Wednesday to call on Israel to halt its onslaught on Lebanon, revealing a split with other European Union leaders.

Quizzed in parliament, Blair said he would not demand that Israel stop the bombardment of Lebanon before Hezbollah releases two kidnapped Israeli soldiers and halts its rocket attacks.

"This would stop now if the soldiers that were kidnapped wrongly when Hezbollah crossed the UN blue line were released," Blair told MPs.

"It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa deliberately to kill innocent civilians. If those two things happen ... I will be the first out there saying Israel should halt its operations."

Israel has demanded the release of two soldiers snatched by Hezbollah and a third taken by Palestinians, the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 and a halt to rocket attacks as preconditions for any diplomatic solution.

Blair's position was in contrast to those of German President Horst Koehler and his Italian counterpart Giorgio Napolitano, who called Wednesday for an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East.

Koehler said Israel had a right to self-defence, but added: "We are very concerned about the high number of civilian victims and the destruction of infrastructure."

Napolitano, in Berlin for his first official foreign visit since taking office in May, welcomed the proposal for a stronger UN force to be deployed in Lebanon and said it should include European soldiers.

"The UN should be able to rely on the European Union," he told reporters after meeting Koehler.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis echoed their sentiments, calling Wednesday for an "immediate ceasefire" in Lebanon with a view to a "rapid de-escalation of the crisis".

"The international community's reaction as expressed by the UN must be clear: an immediate ceasefire, the immediate and unconditional liberation of the kidnapped soldiers, the immediate disarmament of paramilitary organisations," he said in a televised speech.

A total of 310 people have been killed since Israel launched a deadly offensive across Lebanon last Wednesday in a bid to cripple Hezbollah after it captured two Israeli soldiers.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called Wednesday for an immediate solution to the escalating violence.

In his second visit to the region in days, Solana called on "those who insist they may have influence to help to solve this problem," a possible allusion to Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah, urging them to act "immediately".

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was a mistake to "accuse particular countries and leaders" outside Israel and Lebanon over the crisis.

"If we start to think in terms of who is guilty as some other states do, directly accusing particular countries and leaders, this will only inflame passions still further," Lavrov told the Echo Moscow radio station in an apparent reference to US accusations of Syrian and Iranian involvement.

"We are trying a follow a different Russian tradition, to think about what we do," he said.

Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek's government came out in favour of the rapid deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to end the crisis in Lebanon.

"The government will press for a rapid deployment of UN peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone," it said in a statement.

The government also recognised Israel's "right to self-defence" but called on the Jewish state to do all it could to limit danger to civilian lives and infrastructure.

Meanwhile French President Jacques Chirac called for "humanitarian corridors" in Lebanon to protect civilians from Israeli bombardment.

"Humanitarian corridors need to be set up inside Lebanon to allow the movement of people. ... They need to be able to do it with a certain level of security," Chirac said after a cabinet meeting.

"And corridors also are needed between Lebanon and the outside, in other words essentially for the moment between Lebanon and Cyprus," he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had "serious questions" over Israel's conduct as civilians bore the brunt of the strikes on Lebanon.

"The high number of civilian casualties and the extent of damage to essential public infrastructure raise serious questions regarding respect for the principle of proportionality in the conduct of hostilities," ICRC director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl told journalists at the organisation's Geneva base.


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