Blair shuttle moves to Israel
JERSUSALEM (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Israel Thursday on the latest round of shuttle diplomacy over the war against terrorism.
His visit follows a difficult day in Damascus where he heard first hand Arab anger at the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
At a joint news conference, Syrian President Bashar Assad denounced the air raids for causing "hundreds" of civilian casualties.
It was Blair's first face-to-face confrontation with the controversy caused by the U.S. and UK campaign, although aides insisted later he had expected Assad to restate his well-known hostility to the bombing.
Blair was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Thursday at the end of a diplomatic trip designed to try to forge a consensus with Arab leaders on a way forward for the area.
While visits to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan highlighted Arab concerns over civilian casualties in Afghanistan, aides to Blair said they had been a useful means of introducing new impetus into the process.
Thursday morning Blair was holding talks with Jordan's King Abdullah, thought likely to join Assad in stressing the need for a settlement for the Palestinians.
In an interview with the regional MBC television station ahead of his meetings in Jerusalem and Gaza, the British PM told Arab and Israeli viewers: "What I will be saying in Israel is that we have to get a process of dialogue based on two fixed points of principle.
"The first is that Israel must exist as a state confident in its own security and the second is that the Palestinian people should be able to live in their state according to the principles of justice.
"Based on these two fixed points of principle, I believe we can make progress."
President Assad Wednesday embarrassed Blair by defending groups like Hamas and Hezbollah as freedom fighters battling Israeli occupation of their land.
Of the Afghanistan bombing campaign, Assad said: "We cannot accept what we see on our television every day of the bombing of innocent civilians. There are hundreds now every day."
The Taliban said that 1,500 people had died in the air-strikes, including 15 at a clinic reportedly hit in the city of Kandahar Wednesday. The claim could not be independently verified.
Blair's visit to Israel takes place against the background of British ministers' recognition that military action in Afghanistan is likely to take months.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told the House of Commons that operations against the Taliban would begin making "steady progress over the winter months building up to spring next year".
In Riyadh Wednesday, Blair delivered his familiar message to critics of the bombing campaign, telling reporters: "My response is very clear.
"We undertook the action against the al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime that shelters them after several weeks in which we had given the Taliban every opportunity to deliver up those responsible for the September 11 atrocities.
"The action we take is targeted, we do the maximum we can to minimise civilian casualties and I believe there is a very, very broad understanding of that right around the world.
"I think we have to understand there are different perspectives people will bring to this situation. But you can either stay out of the dialogue or get into it and try and offer an approach of understanding in the future.
"And in respect of the Middle East peace process, this is only going to work if people engage and discuss."
Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries which formally recognised the Taliban, before severing links to them last month.
"We have agreed that we should work together closely in order to make sure that in the future for Afghanistan there is a government which is as broad-based as possible, that includes all the main groupings," Blair said.
Blair embarked on his Middle East tour after making a keynote speech on Tuesday urging people not to forget the horrors of September 11.
The address was designed to correct a perceived "wobble" in the public and media's support for the bombing campaign and Blair stressed it was important "we never forget why we are doing it."
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