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A UN team will come to the Middle East in the next days to try and defuse the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah and Hamas. UN Secretary General Kofi Anan announced the mission Thursday, naming Vijay Nambiar, his own special political adviser to head the team.
Other members will be UN Middle East envoy Alvaro De Soto and Terje Roed-Larsen, the envoy in charge of implementing resolution 1559 regarding the sovereignty of Lebanon.
The team will begin its mission in Cairo on Saturday and from there will head to Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarricm said that the goal of the delegation would be to stress the need for all parties to exercise restraint and "to do whatever possible to help contain the conflict."
The UN Security Council is expected to discuss the situation in Lebanon on Friday. It was also scheduled to debate Thursday afternoon a resolution presented by Qatar concerning the violence in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman got into a televised spat with Palestinian ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansur on Wednesday. After being interviewed on CNN, the two ambassadors came across each other in the hallway, while TV cameras were still running. "You are so in love with occupation that you, you cling to it even when we leave every single inch," Gillerman said to Mansur. The Palestinian representative replied: "We hate occupation. You are not leaving us; I wish you'd leave us alone." The exchange went on for several minutes and was reported widely in the US media.
The US continues to demonstrate measured support to the Israeli actions in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Andrea Merkel, US president George Bush stressed Israel's right to defend itself. "It's really sad where people are willing to take innocent life in order to stop that progress. As a matter of fact, it's pathetic. And having said that, Israel has a right to defend herself. Every nation must defend herself against terrorist attacks and the killing of innocent life," Bush said.
At the same time, President Bush called on Israel not to harm "the fragile democracy" in Lebanon. "Whatever Israel does, though, should not weaken the Saniora government in Lebanon," the President added.
The US continues to point to Syria and Iran as countries that bear responsibility for the actions of Hizbullah. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that the international community should ask Iran and Syria to act in order to release the Israeli kidnapped soldiers. "I think that it is really time for everyone to acknowledge the fact that these two states do have some measure of control over Hizbullah," McCormack said.
Meanwhile, the European Union called on all sides to halt the renewed violence in the Middle East and take care to avoid more civilian casualties.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Thursday he was planning a peace mission to the Middle East after consulting with players in the region and with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He did not say when he might make the trip, but EU diplomats suggested Solana could leave before Monday.
Earlier, France's foreign minister condemned Israeli attacks on Lebanon on Thursday, and said he supported Beirut's calls for the UN Security Council to intervene.
The Israeli invasion "is a disproportional act of war with negative consequences," Philippe Douste-Blazy told France's Europe-1 radio. He added that France was calling for "the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon to be preserved."
Douste-Blazy appeared to be stepping up France's opposition to the Israeli campaign on a country with historical ties to Paris. On Wednesday, he condemned Israeli strikes but also the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, and he demanded their release.
On Thursday, he warned that Israel's air campaign - its heaviest against Lebanon in 24 years - could "plunge Lebanon back into the worst years of the war with the flight of thousands of Lebanese who...were in the process of rebuilding their country."
"Today, we support the Lebanese request that the UN Security Council take up the issue as soon as possible," he said, echoing calls by Lebanon's Cabinet.
Spain's response on Thursday was more balanced. Spain condemned the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, and called on the Israeli forces to use restraint in their retaliation.
In a statement, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said the kidnapping and subsequent Israeli reaction "opens a flank of instability, which adds to the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian peace process."
"The Spanish government, very worried about these grave incidents, demands an end to the armed aggression against Israel and the immediate liberation of the kidnapped soldiers," the statement said.
It also called on "Israel to act with moderation and in proportion to these events given the need to avoid a spreading of violence, which would put the stability of the region in danger and would have as its principal victim, once again, the civilian population."
The ministry said the Spanish government was in permanent contact with all sides with the aim of easing tension and contributing to solving the crisis.
In a strongly worded statement, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin also called for Israel to respect Lebanon's sovereignty.
"The continued destruction of civilian infrastructure in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and the disproportionate use of force by Israel, which causes suffering to the civilian population, can be neither understood nor justified," he said.
"Equally unacceptable are any manifestations of terrorism and the taking of hostages, who must be released immediately and unconditionally," he said.
Russia is a member of the Quartet group of international mediators, which also includes the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.
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