Blair, Annan Call for International Troops in Lebanon
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
The leaders of the group of eight leading industrial countries have blamed extremists for the escalating crisis in the Middle East, but a joint G-8 statement fails to indicate what steps to take next.
Debate over the hostilities is overshadowing a G-8 summit in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, where leaders are meeting for a final day. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
The statement emerged yesterday following an afternoon of delicate negotiations by leaders under pressure to bridge major differences over how to respond to the increasing violence. Early in the day, President Bush fully supported Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: This started because Hezbollah decided to capture two Israeli soldiers and fire hundreds of rockets into Israel, from southern Lebanon. That's the cause of the crisis. So our message to Israel is, look, defend yourself, but as you do so, be mindful of the consequences. And so we urge restraint.
FEIFER: British Prime Minister Tony Blair backed Mr. Bush's position, but other heads of state criticized Israel's actions. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned Israel's attacks against Lebanon, saying the Israelis hadn't explored all peaceful methods of solving the situation.
President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) We get the sense that besides the return of its two kidnapped soldiers, Israel is pursuing other goals of a bigger scope.
FEIFER: Speaking at a late-night news conference, Putin said he and Blair had taken the initiative in finding common ground.
President PUTIN: (Through translator) We had to deal with the situation as it arose, and the tragic events unfolded in front of our eyes. From the Russian point of view, the key point about the declaration is that it's balanced.
FEIFER: Seeking to avoid a wider war in the Middle East, the G-8 leaders said in their statement that extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos. The statement also urged Israel to exert utmost restraint and avoid civilian casualties.
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel spelled out the carefully worded compromise's main points.
Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL (Germany): (Through translator) We demand first of all that all kidnapped Israeli soldiers be freed and that all attacks on Israel are stopped. Then of course, all Israeli military action must also stop.
FEIFER: Merkel had successfully pushed for the statement to call for United Nations observers to be sent to Lebanon, but the U.N. and European Union have already sent missions into Lebanon that are expected to report to the U.N. Security Council next week.
Although all sides seem pleased with the G-8's joint statement, some of the disagreements its highly diplomatic language papered over broke out almost immediately. French President Jacques Chirac said the statement called for a ceasefire. Washington disagreed.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said there was no push by any country for a ceasefire. The United States sees a ceasefire as an infringement of Israel's right to defend itself.
Today Blair said a ceasefire would accomplish nothing. Instead, he called for the U.N. to send troops into Lebanon to stop Hezbollah from firing rockets into Israel. He said that was the only way Israel would stop attacking Lebanon.
Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): Unless we create the conditions in which a cessation is going to happen, then to be very, very blunt about it, the G-8 and the international community can issue whatever calls they want, but without the action there in place it isn't going to happen, in my view.
FEIFER: After meeting with Blair, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the U.N. Security Council to put together a plan to stop the conflict. But other G-8 leaders are expected to weigh in with more interpretations of the joint statement as they wrap up their summit.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, St. Petersburg.