Bush defends Israel as leaders struggle for Mideast response


by Kevin McElderry 37 minutes ago

SAINT PETERSBURG (AFP) - Key world leaders struggled to draft a response to the raging Middle East crisis as US President George W. Bush defended Israel and blamed militants backed by Iran and Syria.

In talks dominated by Israel's devastating offensives in Lebanon and Gaza, leaders of the select Group of Eight major industrialized nations jettisoned their original energy-focused agenda to grasp for consensus on the Middle East.

The United States pressed for a tough statement identifying the root cause of the violence as the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria.

"As a sovereign nation, Israel has every right to defend itself against terrorist activity," Bush said after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair here.

He added: "Our message to Israel is defend yourself, but be mindful of the consequences. And so we've urged restraint."

But many G8 partners, notably Russian President Vladimir Putin and some European leaders, say the Israeli assaults, in response to Hezbollah rocket attacks on the Jewish state and the abduction of three Israeli soldiers, are "disproportionate" and a waste of innocent life.

They have called for restraint by Israel which Putin said appeared to have "wider objectives" than simply retrieving its soldiers.

The Lebanon offensive has left more than 100 people dead on both sides -- Israeli warplanes bombed more targets Sunday while Hezbollah retaliated with rockets on Haifa, killing eight -- while scores have also died in Gaza where tanks rolled in again overnight.

Blair pointed his finger more directly at Damascus and Tehran. "The fact is there are people in that region, notably Iran and Syria, who do not want this process of democratisation and peace and negotiation to succeed," he said.

A French diplomatic source said senior G8 foreign ministry officials were working on a statement stopping short of an outright call for a ceasefire -- rejected by the United States -- but appealing for efforts to put in place the conditions for a truce.

The source said the statement would contain two other strands: protecting civilian lives and infrastructure, and shoring up the Lebanese government and Palestinian Authority.

The G8 countries -- as well as Britain, Russia and the United States, they are Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan -- are also due to discuss Iran's nuclear programme and North Korea's missiles during the summit, which runs to Monday.

One thing they did agree on Sunday was a joint statement on energy, vowing to promote "open, transparent" energy markets and develop alternative energy sources, including nuclear power, to counter soaring oil prices and declining fossil fuel reserves.

The statement may ease friction between Russia and European consumers after Moscow cut gas supplies to Ukraine in a price war earlier this year, resulting in disruption to markets in Europe.

Bush was due to have talks Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao to map the way forward on North Korea after UN condemnation of its missile tests.

The presidents were expected to renew their call for Pyongyang to return to six-country talks on ending its nuclear weapons programme.

Condoleezza Rice thanked Beijing for its support in helping pass the "remarkable" unanimous resolution.

"We really now have a coalition," Rice told reporters, saying North Korea "will have no choice but to return to the talks and pursue denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

On Monday, the G8 leaders will meet with counterparts from the five major emerging market economies -- Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa -- to try to rescue the floundering Doha round of trade liberalization talks.

Earlier, Russian and US negotiators failed despite intensive talks here to overcome lingering obstacles to a bilateral accord enabling Moscow to join the World Trade Organization, which sets global trade rules.

On the margins of the summit, Russian police halted an anti-G8 protest by some 50 activists in central Saint Petersburg and detained 37 of them, mostly foreigners, organisers said.