Bush defends Israeli attacks in Lebanon

(AP) - President Bush strongly defended Israel's attacks in Lebanon on Thursday but worried they could weaken or topple the fragile government in Beirut. The Mideast violence exposed divisions between the United States and allies and raised fears of a widening war.

"Israel has a right to defend herself," Bush said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Every nation must defend herself against terrorist attacks and the killing of innocent life."

Merkel appealed for restraint by all sides and said it was up to the militant group Hezbollah to defuse the situation, triggered by its cross-border raid from Lebanon into Israel and the capture of two Israeli soldiers. She called the violence a "very disturbing situation" that "fills us with concern."

The Mideast eruption came at an awkward time for Bush. His strong support of Israel put him at odds with European Union allies two days before a summit of world leaders in Russia, where the United States is counting on a united stand against Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's long-range missile test. The violence also presented Bush with yet another crisis in the Middle East, along with the Iraq war and the Iran standoff, reports Trend.

Ten hours after Bush's statement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a news conference and emphasized that Israel should exercise restraint to avoid civilian casualties and damage. She had spent much of the day in telephone diplomacy with Mideast leaders.

"The point about restraint, I think, has been taken by our Israeli colleagues," she said.

Rice declined to criticize Israel for its attacks on the Beirut airport and other targets. "I'm not going to try to judge every single act," she told reporters. She said there was considerable concern about the Mideast, with Israel fighting both in the Gaza and on the Lebanese border, but she refused to address fears of a wider war.

"It doesn't help to speculate on kind of apocalyptic scenarios," she said.

Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley voiced concern that the violence would hurt Lebanon's fledgling, democratic government. Rice said that government presented the best opportunity in three decades for democracy and a reduction of Syrian influence.

"This is one more challenge they do not need," Hadley said. He said the United States was asking other nations in the Middle East particularly Egypt to put pressure on Hezbollah to free the Israeli captives.

"Ultimately the best chance for peace will be democracy in Lebanon and the Syrian forces are out and remain out," Rice said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was sending three officials to the Middle East to try to defuse what he described as a major crisis. "What we should all do right now," Rice said, "is to focus on how to make the secretary-general's efforts a success."

Earlier in the day, Bush was welcomed to Merkel's home district in what once was communist East Germany with a ceremonial barrel of pickled herring, a Baltic delicacy. Later at dinner, he cut several slices from the rib area of a wild boar that turned slowly on a spit when he arrived for a barbecue in nearby Trinwillershagen.

Anti-Bush demonstrators were kept far away, but one protester from the Greenpeace environmental group managed to climb high in the clock tower of St. Nicholas Church overlooking Old Market Square where the president was welcomed. The protester displayed a yellow "No War, No Nukes, No Bush" banner from a window but it was gone by the time Bush appeared minutes later.

With Iran delaying its answer to a Western offer of incentives to shelve its nuclear program, Bush said he wanted the summit to send Tehran a message "loud and clear: We're not kidding, it's a serious issue, the world is united in insisting that you not have a nuclear weapons program."

Bush and Merkel said it was not too late for Iran to avoid possible penalties as the U.N. Security Council prepares to take up its case. "They can show up any time and say, wait a minute, now we'd like to go back and negotiate," Bush said. Merkel said: "The door has not been closed."

Among allies, there was disagreement with Bush about Israel's attacks, which included air strikes on Beirut's airport and two Lebanese army air bases near the Syrian border. The European Union criticized Israel for using "disproportionate" force and said Israel's naval blockade of supply routes to Lebanon was unjustified.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the Israeli air campaign its heaviest against Lebanon in 24 years could "plunge Lebanon back into the worst years of the war with the flight of thousands of Lebanese who ... were in the process of rebuilding their country."

Bush, at the news conference, voiced fears about the survival of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government. "The concern is that any activities by Israel to protect herself will weaken that government ... or topple that government. And we've made it clear in our discussions.

"Having said all that," Bush continued, "people need to protect themselves. There are terrorists who will blow up innocent people in order to achieve tactical objectives."

Bush arrives in Moscow on Friday and will have dinner with President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders also will meet Saturday before the opening of the eight-nation summit of industrial powers.

Bush and Merkel said they would raise concerns with Putin that Russia is backsliding on democracy and human rights. But the president laughed off Putin's slap at Vice President Dick Cheney for his criticism of Russia's behavior. Putin, in an interview broadcast Wednesday, called Cheney's remark "an unsuccessful hunting shot" referring to Cheney's accidental wounding of a hunting companion in February.

"It was pretty clever," Bush said of Putin. "It was quite humorous not to dis my friend the vice president."

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