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POSTED AT 6:53 PM EDT ON 13/07/06

Harper sides firmly with Israel

Canadian Press

LONDON — Responsibility for the escalating violence in the Middle East rests entirely with those who have kidnapped Israeli soldiers, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday.

Mr. Harper, on his first major international foray, hadn't even touched down in Europe before aligning himself firmly with the United States and Israel in the latest conflagration.

“Israel has the right to defend itself,” the prime minister told reporters aboard a Canadian Forces Airbus en route to London, where he's starting a week-long diplomatic mission.

“I think Israel's response under the circumstances has been measured.”

Israeli military incursions into Lebanon following the kidnapping of two of its soldiers threatened to toss the volatile region into full-scale war. While many countries are urging restraint, Mr. Harper said “the onus to end this escalation is on the other side, and I would urge them to return the prisoners.”

In a prepared statement delivered midway over the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Harper said: “It's essential that Hezbollah and Hamas release their Israeli prisoners and any countries in that area that have influence on these organizations should encourage an end to violence and recognize — and encourage the recognition of — Israel's right to exist.”

He said he found it “tremendously disappointing” that Palestinian organizations are launching attacks on Israel from a territory that Israel “voluntarily evacuated.” Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

The National Council on Canada-Arab Relations issued a statement in Ottawa calling on Mr. Harper to use Canada's diplomatic ties to demand an immediate cessation of Israeli attacks against Lebanon.

The council called on Mr. Harper to “contact his counterparts in Lebanon and Israel to urge restraint and condemn the use of force against civilians.”

“The implications of the widening conflict engulfing Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians will result in far-reaching consequences that will prevent any chances of peace in the region.”

Mr. Harper's unabashed pro-Israel stance, is sure to prove divisive at the G8 summit this weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia, which anchors Mr. Harper's first major overseas foray as prime minister.

Russia and France have both criticized Israel for using disproportionate force in its attacks on Lebanon.

The EU also called Israel's naval blockade cutting off supply routes to Lebanon unjustified.

But the United States has strongly backed Israel.

Mr. Harper refused to be drawn into assessing whether Israel's military incursion into Lebanon — including the bombing of Beirut airport — is too much, responding only that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

“I'm assuming this will come up at the G8,” Mr. Harper added.

It marked the opening of what may prove to be a typically blunt-spoken diplomatic mission for the recently elected Conservative prime minister.

The seven-day trip marks an international coming out party of sorts.

Mr. Harper's meeting Friday morning at 10 Downing Street will be his first with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Later, Mr. Harper has an audience at Buckingham Palace to get reacquainted with Queen Elizabeth, whom he met in Canada during her 50th anniversary visit in 2002.

Talk of the shared Afghanistan mission, to which Mr. Blair has just committed more British troops, is likely to dominate the morning tete-a-tete.

Mr. Harper heads to St. Petersburg on Saturday, where the G8 will convene on Russian soil for the first time since Russia entered the club of leading industrialized countries in 1998.

The prime minister has bilateral meetings arranged with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with Finland's Matti Vanbraneu, who will be in St. Petersburg in his capacity as European Union president.

In addition to leaders of the United States, France, Italy and Japan — which along with Canada, Germany and Russia comprise the G8 — Mr. Harper will be crossing paths with leaders from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa during a G8 outreach session on Monday.

The summit of global leaders comes at a particularly volatile time.

Besides the Israeli-Lebanon conflict, nuclear brinkmanship in Iran and North Korea, terrorist strikes in Mumbai, India, and the ongoing insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq are making this one of the hottest summers in geopolitics in several years.

Between the crisis discussions, the G8 leaders are supposed to examine global energy security and pandemic preparedness.

Mr. Harper returns to Canada next week via France, where he'll stop to see the restoration project on the Vimy Ridge memorial before a quick stop in Paris for meetings with French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and President Jacques Chirac.

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