EU mission to Gaza to visit Mideast over ceasefire: Czech PM

The European Union's 'main role' is to seek a ceasefire in Gaza, the Czech prime minister said.

EU mission to Gaza to visit Mideast over ceasefire: Czech PM

The European Union's 'main role' is to seek a ceasefire in Gaza, the Czech prime minister said on Thursday as he took over the bloc's rotating presidency and announced a diplomatic mission to the Middle East.

Mirek Topolanek said the EU should not be deterred by lack of progress towards a political solution and the absence of any major U.S. initiative, as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take over from George W. Bush on Jan. 20.

"It must not mean that the European Union ... will give up on organising a ceasefire," Topolanek told Czech TV. "I think it's our main role in the coming days and weeks."

In taking over the EU presidency from France, the Czechs assumed a key role in tackling the crisis in Gaza. In a bid to halt rocket attacks from the coastal strip, Israel launched an offensive last week that has so far claimed more than 400 Palestinian lives.

Topolanek said he was organising a diplomatic mission to the Middle East that would include the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana, its External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt would take part and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner would also be invited. The mission will go to Cairo, Tel Aviv, the West Bank city of Ramallah -- where the Palestinian Authority is based -- and the Jordanian capital Amman, Czech officials said.

The trip will coincide with a visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the area on Jan. 5, the first by a major power since Israel launched air strikes on Gaza last week.

"It is overlapping with the trip of Nicolas Sarkozy to Syria and Lebanon ... I spoke with (Sarkozy) for a long time yesterday and we dealt with the problem in detail," Topolanek said.

He said that, with Bush not taking a leading role on the conflict, it would fall to Europe to lead efforts.

"The unpleasant thing is that we cannot count on the U.S. administration... It is up to the European Union to take over the initiative," Topolanek said. The situation was "kind of waiting for the new administration of Obama", he said.

The French and Czechs have struck differing tones towards the violence, with Schwarzenberg, a staunch U.S. ally, defending Israel's strikes this week. But Topolanek's comments made clear Prague backs calls by France and others for a ceasefire, a move Israel has rejected.

Reuters
Last Mod: 02 Ocak 2009, 11:22
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