European diplomats head to Mideast amid Gaza fighting

Amid a scathing attack Sunday from the Arab League, European diplomats and leaders were readying to travel to the Mideast region in a bid to push for a ceasefire in the wake of Israel's military incursion into the Gaza Strip, dpa reported.

Virtually simultaneously, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and Russian special Mideast envoy Alexander Saltanov were all expected in the region on Sunday and Monday to visit several of the regional states.

Schwarzenberg heads an EU mission - the Czech Republic assumed the EU presidency on January 1 - following an EU foreign ministers' call at their emergency meeting in Paris last week for an immediate truce and full opening of the Gaza Strip to international aid agencies.

The EU group will also include Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity, Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa Sunday sharply criticised some European politicians who were defending Israel's actions as those taken in self-defence.

"We are hearing that there are people who say that this is a war of self-defence. This we reject with utmost decisiveness," Mussa said, while also denouncing the failure of the UN Security Council late Saturday to agree on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

He said Arab countries would undertake a third attempt to persuade the security council to issue a resolution demanding that both sides immediately stop their attacks.

A delegation of Arab foreign ministers is expected to leave for the UN's headquarters Sunday evening, Mussa said.

Regarding the impending visit by Sarkozy, the Arab League chief said it had to be seen what proposals the French leader would be bringing.

"We welcome every positive proposal which gets things going and if President Sarkozy can bring such a proposal then we will welcome him," Mussa said.

The Czech government statement in Prague said that Israel's land attack on the Gaza Strip was expected, but cannot justify the suffering inflicted on the civilian population.

"Launching land operations by the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip is not surprising, there were indications that Israel had been considering this step. But even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians," the Czech government said.

The Czech statement repeated that demand, calling for "the facilitation of humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and ... the establishment of a ceasefire."

However, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said prior to leaving for the Middle East on Sunday said that Hamas bore responsibility for the current conflict.

"Hamas provoked this catastrophe, they really bear the responsibility. We can discuss the Israeli reaction but, unfortunately, it is clear who began it," said Schwarzenberg in a television interview.

Parallel to the EU mission, the EU Commission on Sunday pledged 3 million euros (4.2 million dollars) in emergency aid to civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Sarkozy, travelling to the region in France's capacity as co- president with Egypt of the Mediterranean Union, is to visit Cairo, Ramallah and Jerusalem on Monday, followed by talks on Tuesday in Syria and then a visit with French troops in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile in Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Saltanov had been commissioned by President Dmitry Medvedev to "set up contacts in Israel, the Palestinian areas as well as Damascus and Amman." Moscow was concerned about the "continuing destabilisation of the situation in the Gaza Strip," the ministry said.

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