Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered brief condolences yesterday to the families of Canadians killed in Lebanon, but has not asked Israel for an explanation for their deaths.
And while he offered more details, Harper did not back down from his comment that Israel's bombing of Lebanon was a "measured" response to Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers, a characterization that has angered Canada's Arab community.
In his closing news conference at the Group of Eight summit, sharp differences also emerged between Harper and French President Jacques Chirac over the Israeli action, setting the stage for fireworks during the last leg of the PM's European tour, his first tete-a-tete with Chirac tomorrow in Paris.
The G8 summit was dominated by the Middle East crisis, and it ended yesterday with an urgent call by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and visiting United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for an international peacekeeping force for the region.
Chirac demanded swift action to bring about a ceasefire in the escalating hostilities that saw the death toll climb to more than 200, most in Lebanon.
Harper rejected the call, as did the United States, saying that his interpretation of the G8's position was for Hezbollah and Hamas to first release the three Israeli soldiers they are holding and to stop shelling Israel.
"The ceasefire is one element of the action plan that's called for in the G8 statement, but I would point out it's not the first thing called for, nor is it the only thing," Harper said.
Chirac, meanwhile, referred to Israel's action in Lebanon as "aberrant."
Harper also brushed aside a charge from the Canadian Arab Federation that he is responsible for the deaths of eight Canadians, including four children. "I don't think that warrants a response. It's a bizarre accusation."
Israel expressed its condolences yesterday for the Montrealers' deaths, but blamed Hezbollah for locating its weapons among civilian locations, "thereby deliberately placing Lebanese citizens and others in the crossfire in
violation of all humanitarian norms."
(In Berlin, where he is on an official visit through today, Premier Jean Charest offered his condolences to the Al-Akhrass family in Montreal as well.
("We are profoundly saddened and offer our condolences to the victims' family. Our thoughts are with those who, near or far, are living with this tragedy.")
Harper elaborated for the first time on his controversial comments about the "measured" Israeli response that he made last Thursday in a three-minute visit with reporters travelling on his plane.
"I think our evaluation of the situation has been accurate. Obviously, there's been an ongoing escalation and, frankly, ongoing escalation is inevitable once conflict begins," Harper said, making it clear that blame for the current crisis rests with Hezbollah and Hamas.
"But obviously we continue to urge Israel and others to minimize civilian damage."
It also looked as though Canada lacked enthusiasm for an international peacekeeping force to stop the Hezbollah action.
A senior federal official said Canada usually takes part in discussions about UN peacekeeping missions, but pointed out the country's heavy military commitment to Afghanistan. Canada has 2,300 troops there and, according to defence officials, it can't mount another major international mission of that size. Canada also faces pressure to participate in a multinational force for the Darfur region of Sudan if a UN mission there ever materializes.
Blair pressed the Mideast issue before leaving St. Petersburg.
"The blunt reality is that this violence is not going to stop unless we create the conditions for the cessation of violence," Blair said after meeting with Annan.
Annan said his officials in the region would give him recommendations in the coming days.
"I intend to pursue this with the other leaders," Annan said.
"Several of the countries here are
also key members of the Security Council, and I expect them to work with us to get the package that will push this forward."
All five permanent members of the Security Council were in St. Petersburg yesterday, because Chinese President Hu Jintao had been invited as part of a five-country G8 outreach session.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, another of the five permanent members, said it would have been improper for the G8 to speculate on the composition of a UN mission because that would undercut the Security Council.
He also said that a UN mission would require the permission of Israel and Lebanon.
Russia blocked any reference in the final G8 statement that would have blamed Syria for its backing of Hezbollah. Putin described the lengthy leaders' discussion of the crisis as a "tense period."
"If we don't have enough grounds to blame somebody, we cannot ... put in documents on such a serious state level just based on assertions," Putin said.
U.S. President George W. Bush didn't mince words about Syria's role in comments he made to Blair over lunch that were picked up by a microphone that should have been turned off.
"See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria and get Hezbollah to stop doing this s--- and it's over," Bush said.
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The abject failure of a peacekeeping force
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was created in March 1978 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.
In 1978, in reprisal for a Palestinian attack into its territory, Israel launched a major invasion of Lebanon, occupying land as far north as the Litani river. Following a Lebanese protest to the Security Council saying it had no connection to the raid, the UN decided on the immediate establishment of UNIFIL. The first UNIFIL troops arrived in the area on March 23, 1978.
UNIFIL was reduced to a bystander when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to clear out Palestinian fighters who had attacked its northern border settlements. Its role was limited to providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the local population to the extent possible.
In 2000, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon, but UNIFIL has proved no more able to stop Hezbollah attacks on the Jewish state since then.
In January 2006, the Security Council authorized the UN peacekeepers to remain another six months in southern Lebanon. The measure urged Israel and Lebanon to put an end to violations of their shared border, but singled out for particular concern a pair of attacks in recent months "initiated by Hezbollah ... which demonstrated once more that the situation remains volatile and fragile."
UNIFIL has acknowledged the failure of its main mission. It achieved none of its objectives of restoring peace and security, or helping the Lebanese government restore its effective authority in the area.
UNIFIL consists of 1,991 troops as well as about 50 military observers. The soldiers are provided by China, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy and Poland. It has lost a total of 257 members over the years.
Harper stands by his comment on Israel's 'measured' response
Par Mike Blanchfield