Monday, July 24, 2006

UN may send envoys to Syria and Iran for talks on Lebanon

The United Nations is considering dispatching envoys to Syria and Iran as part of a diplomatic push to end fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, Western diplomats said on Monday.

"Consideration is being given to going to Damascus and Tehran," a Western diplomat said of the UN delegation, led by Vijay Nambiar. "The key to unlocking this is Syria and Iran. You have to talk to the powers behind the throne."

Diplomats said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would decide in the coming days whether to dispatch the team, which has already held talks with Lebanese and Israeli leaders. READ MORE

One diplomat said Washington's goal was to "drive a wedge" between Syria and Iran over Hezbollah.

Syria has offered to play a constructive role, but there is no sign the Bush administration is ready to turn to a country it accuses of sponsoring terrorism and helping insurgents in Iraq.

Israel Air Force planes have bombed near the Syrian border and Israel has repeatedly accused Damascus of sending fresh weapons supplies to Hezbollah - charges denied by Syrian officials.

More top European Union foreign affairs officials are set to travel to the Middle East to meet Israeli officials later this week, EU president Finland said on Monday.

Foreign ministers from the world's most powerful countries and Arab states are due to hold an emergency meeting in Rome on Wednesday to discuss the crisis. No decision on international action is seen likely before that.

Finland's Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for external relations, are set to travel to the region on Thursday and Friday.

"We are working on details of the trip ... it will be at least to Israel, to Jerusalem to meet at least the foreign minister," Tuomioja's spokeswoman said.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has made two trips to the region seeking a solution. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to hold meetings in Israel on Tuesday.

European countries have been more critical of Israel's offensive than its main ally, the United States, which has stalled calls for a ceasefire and made clear that it blames Iranian-backed Hezbollah for the crisis.

European countries have backed calls for a stabilization force in southern Lebanon, but it is not clear which nations are willing to provide troops or with what mandate.