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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 14: Possible EU troop movements to Israel and/or the Middle East

EU 'acutely concerned' by Middle East violence
By Mark Beunderman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers have urged Israel "not to resort to disproportionate action" when defending itself against Hezbollah attacks, while member states are evacuating their own nationals after joint EU plans to bring Europeans home proved troublesome.

Ministers also discussed the possibility of sending troops to the region as part of a new UN peace force.

Foreign ministers were on Monday (17 July) briefed by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana following a Sunday trip to assess the escalating violence in Lebanon.

They met amid reports of more civilian casualties in mutual attacks between Israel and the islamist Hezbollah movement, with the BBC reporting that at least 10 Lebanese people died in an Israeli attack in the south of the country.

Ministers agreed on a statement which was as similar as possible to a text adopted by G8 leaders in St Petersburg over the weekend in order to create an "international front to press Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah," Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot said.

The statement says that the EU is "acutely concerned" at the situation in the Middle East, "in particular at the deteriorating humanitarian situation and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and deplores the loss of civilian lives on all sides."

"The European Union condemns the attacks by Hezbollah on Israel and the abduction of two Israeli soldiers. It calls for their immediate and unconditional release and for the cessation of all attacks on Israeli towns and cities," the text reads.

Ministers also said that The "EU recognises Israel's legitimate right to self-defence, but it urges Israel to exercise utmost restraint and not to resort to disproportionate action."

EU troops to the region?
The passage on Israeli actions is notably weaker than earlier statements issued by the Finnish EU presidency last week, which had simply called Israeli violence "disproportionate."

An Israeli diplomat told EUobserver that Jerusalem disliked this wording, asking "what do people expect Israel to do?" in face of the "indiscriminate terror" by Hezbollah rocket attacks.

As wished by Jerusalem, EU ministers also recalled "the need for the Lebanese state to restore its sovereignty over the whole of its national territory and to do its utmost to prevent [Hezbollah] attacks."

Ministers also discussed the possibility of sending troops to the region as part of a new UN peace force.

UK prime minister Tony Blair said on Monday at the St Petersburg G8 meeting "The only way in my view we are going to get a cessation of hostilities is if we have the deployment of an international force into that area that can stop the bombardment coming over into Israel and therefore gives Israel the reason to stop its attacks on Hezbollah."

EU ministers agreed to in principle contribute to such a force if the UN would request so, according to Finnish foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja.

He said that "It is primarily the UN and the Security Council who would have to deal with this issue" but added that EU ministers "have made clear to favourably consider participating in such a mission."

But speaking for the Netherlands, Mr Bot this would be "for others" to do, with the Hague already overburdened by international peace operations around the globe.

EU evacuation trouble
Meanwhile, member states are individually proceeding to evacuate their nationals from the crisis region after weekend efforts at EU coordination proved troublesome.

Mr Tuomioja referred to "intensive consular co-operation co-ordinated by the presidency."

With the EU not having a consular service, "improvisation worked very well," the Finnish politician said.

But Mr Bot said that The Hague concluded on Saturday it had to rely on its "own force" when it became clear that common EU efforts were to strand.

He said that Finland has no embassy in Lebanon and had ask to use Germany's, while France would send a ship to pick up Europeans but that ship "had not arrived."

Slovak foreign minister Igor Kubis told EUobserver "Some states did provide their services to other nationals - like Czech aircrafts taking on board also Slovaks citizens."

But ministers agreed to set up a working group that "would suggest measures for even better co-ordination in future," he added.

Some European families were lucky and fitted into the helicopter flying Mr Solana from Lebanon to Cyprus on Sunday; the foreign policy chief said. "On my legs, I had a little baby."

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