Leaders at summit clash on Mideast

Violence tops G-8 discussions

By Jeannine Aversa
Associated Press / July 16, 2006

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ST. PETERSBURG -- Leaders of the world's industrial powers clashed yesterday over the escalating violence in the Middle East even as the summit host, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, pledged, ``We will find common ground on this."

The leaders opened the summit -- the first in Russia -- with a dinner at the opulent 18th-century Peterhof Palace, which was extensively damaged during World War II and then painstakingly rebuilt. Formal talks were to begin today at a second palace that doubles as Putin's residence while he is in St. Petersburg.

Putin had wanted this year's Group of Eight summit to focus on bolstering energy supplies, boosting education, and fighting infectious diseases. But the military conflict between Israel and Lebanon is dominating the discussions. Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions also are likely to overtake the agenda.

``We've got a lot to work on," President Bush acknowledged.

The G-8 countries -- the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and Canada -- were expected to issue a joint declaration on the Middle East crisis.

However the document's drafters were struggling to deal with sharp differences between the United States and the other countries over how to proceed. The United States is pressing for a statement that identifies Hezbollah militants as the main culprit, and emphasizes the importance of maintaining a democratic Lebanon.

Bush said Israel has a right to defend itself. ``The best way to stop the violence is for Hezbollah to lay down its arms and to stop attacking," he said.

Putin and other leaders criticized what they see as an overreaction by Israel that has caused dozens of civilian deaths and risked a major escalation of bloodshed in the Middle East.

``We are very concerned," said Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy. ``We understand the right of Israel to defend itself, of course, and we understand there were provocations against Israel but we believe the use of force by Israel was disproportionate."

President Jacques Chirac of France was even harsher in his comments, saying ``One could ask if today there is not sort of a will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, its communications."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan said he understood Israel's anger but urged against seeking ``an eye for an eye."

Putin said it was unacceptable for Hezbollah to try to achieve its goals using force and abductions, but he also was critical of Israel's military response.

``The use of force should be balanced. And, in any case, bloodshed should stop as soon as possible," he said.

Despite the differences, he expressed optimism that the leaders would find common ground.

Far from the gathering, protesters -- some denouncing globalization -- faced off with police. They were fewer than the hundreds of thousands that have tried to disrupt previous summits.