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Agence France Presse

World Powers Call for End to Gaza Fighting


PARIS - The European Union demanded Tuesday that Israel and Hamas halt their conflict in Gaza, as the world's top diplomats scrambled to find a solution to the escalating bloodshed.

European foreign ministers met in Paris to urge a truce, while the Middle East diplomatic Quartet -- the EU, Russia, United Nations and United States -- made a similar demand after a conference call.

France, which currently holds the EU presidency, hosted a meeting of foreign ministers and senior envoys from the bloc's 27 member states to agree a common stance on the conflict.

"We want a ceasefire," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said as the meeting was taking place.

"We want it to be permanent, to be respected, with humanitarian access because there are many victims... and also a return to the peace process," he told TF1 television.

He said a joint statement was still being prepared but that "there is no difference on this point, on the contrary."

Israeli officials have said they could consider international calls for a pause in fighting to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, but both they and their Hamas opponents have rebuffed previous calls for a lasting truce.

Earlier, some EU officials had suggested that the body would as a priority ask Israel for a temporary halt in its bombardments to allow humanitarian aid to reach Gaza's 1.5 million beleaguered residents.

"The goal is an immediate ceasefire and especially a humanitarian truce, that's what we're going to ask Israel, and we hope they'll accept," Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said before the talks.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is to meet Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday in Paris, his office said.

Foreign capitals largely agreed on the need for both sides to halt the bombardments, though Germany and the United States have blamed the fighting squarely on the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was joined on a conference call by foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Condoleezza Rice of the United States and Bernard Kouchner of France.

The Quartet's peace envoy, Tony Blair, was also on the call along with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Afterwards, the UN issued a statement giving their officials' account of the call, while the Quartet made no joint statement itself, perhaps suggesting they had been unable to agree on the wording.

"The Quartet principals... called for an immediate ceasefire that would be fully respected," the statement said.

"They called on all parties to address the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza and to take necessary measures to ensure the continuous provision of humanitarian supplies," it added.

The United States backs Israel's right to defend itself and Israel has warned of a long campaign ahead -- with some senior officials openly declaring that the offensive aims to topple Gaza's Hamas administration.

Such statements have undermined hopes of a quick end to the bloodshed that has already left more than 370 Palestinians -- around a sixth of them civilians -- and four Israelis dead since Saturday.

The EU could also propose measures to help calm tempers, including a revival of a suspended EU observer mission to the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, a Paris-based diplomat said ahead of the EU talks.

Egypt temporarily opened the checkpoint to allow wounded Palestinians out of Gaza, but Europe would like to oversee a more permanent arrangement to allow in aid and end the Hamas-controlled territory's isolation.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak said the Rafah crossing would remain closed until the Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, regained control of Gaza from his Hamas rivals and EU observers were deployed.

On Sunday, the UN Security Council approved a non-binding statement calling for "an immediate halt to all violence" in Gaza and urging all sides "to stop immediately all military activities."

Nevertheless, Hamas has fired more than 250 rockets into Israeli territory and scores of Israeli air strikes have taken a mounting toll.

The crisis erupted on December 19 when a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel expired. The Palestinian group refused to renew the truce and stepped up rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Israel launched its air raids on Saturday.

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