Secretary-General sends top advisers to Middle East to defuse crisis; calls key leaders

Vijay K. Nambiar

13 July 2006 – Seeking to defuse what he called “the major crisis” stemming from the flare-up of violence between Israel, the Palestinians and Lebanon, Secretary-General Kofi Annan is today sending a three-member team of veteran United Nations officials for wide-ranging talks in the region.

At the same time he is engaging in intensive telephone diplomacy with leaders from both within and outside the region, including United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacque Chirac.

“He really is on the phone personally, very engaged in trying to do his best to calm things down,” spokesperson Marie Okabe told a news briefing in New York, where the Security Council today failed to adopt a draft resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the Israeli soldier abducted by Palestinian armed groups from Gaza and for a halt to what it called a “disproportionate” military reaction by Israel, due to a veto by the United States, which called the text unbalanced and outdated.

Ms. Okabe added that Mr. Annan was about to speak to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “He is constantly on the phone with all players in the region.”

Speaking to reporters in Rome, where he is on a visit, Mr. Annan voiced deep alarm, particularly at the impact of the fighting on civilians, with dozens of Lebanese already killed as a result of Israeli operations and many more injured, and Israeli civilians killed and wounded from Hizbollah militant attacks on Israeli towns.

“I would like to remind the parties that under the law of armed conflict, attacks must not be directed against civilian objects,” he said. “In particular, they have an obligation to exercise precaution and to respect the proportionality principle in all military operations so as to prevent unnecessary suffering among the civilian population,” he said.

“I and leaders from around the world have been working around the clock, as have my representatives on the ground, to find a solution to the crisis, to urge restraint and prevent these situations spiralling even further out of control,” he added.

“I can only hope that the parties heed our counsel, and that regional players who have influence will do likewise. Reckless and dangerous actions will only lead to further bloodshed and instability, inflaming an already highly volatile region.

The team Mr. Annan is sending to the region will be led by his Special Political Advisor Vijay Nambiar and includes UN envoy to Middle East Alvaro de Soto and Special Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. It will first visit Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials and consult with Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting there on Saturday, the Secretary-General's spokesman said in a statement issued in Rome.

They are also expected to travel to Israel, the occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and Syria. Other stops will be added as needed during the weeklong trip.

“Mr. Nambiar will emphasize to all parties the Secretary-General's call to exercise restraint and to do whatever possible to help contain the conflict,” the spokesman said. “He will also reiterate the Secretary-General's message to respect international humanitarian law and to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

Mr. Annan yesterday called for the immediate release of two Israeli soldiers seized by Hizbollah militants and called on the Lebanese Government to extend its control over all Lebanese territory and prevents such attacks across the line separating the two countries. He has also called for the release of an Israeli soldier seized last month by Palestinian militants from Gaza.

In his comments today, he said he was gravely concerned about the situation in Gaza, where Palestinian civilians are paying a bitter price from heavy Israeli military operations and an alarming humanitarian situation that threatens to get worse.

Leaders Mr. Annan has already spoken to include Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

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