Leaders of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations crafted an aid plan to support democratic uprisings in the Arab world on the first day of a two-day summit in the French town of Deauville.
The leaders are expected on May 27 to promise new aid for the new governments of Tunisia and Egypt, still reeling from the popular movements that earlier this year ejected Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, respectively, from power.
British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged $175 million to foster democracy in the region, while French President Nicholas Sarkozy is reportedly pushing allies for more.
Speaking at an opening news conference, Council President Herman van Rompuy said the bloc's goal was to assist the people of the Middle East and North Africa first and foremost.
"The clear objective is to support the democratic and economic aspirations of the 400 million of people in this area. These developments in the Arab world are of crucial importance for all G-8 partners. For Europe, moreover, it is our southern neighborhood. We have to listen to those peoples and to offer our support," van Rompuy said.
Reuters reports that the aid package will amount to billions of dollars and will tie the money to progress on democracy and economic reforms.
The International Monetary Fund says it can provide around $35 billion to help stabilize countries' economies, but the bulk of financing for the region will need to come from the international community.
In a report to G8 leaders, the IMF said today the external financing needs of oil-importing countries in the Middle East and North Africa would surpass $160 billion over the next three years.
The United States, France and Canada also stepped up their calls at the summit for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after overnight gun battles killed dozens of people.
The United States, a key sponsor of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ordered all but essential diplomatic staff to leave the country as clashes between tribal militias and government troops intensified -- leading some analysts and correspondents to report that Yemen is now embroiled in a civil war.
U.S. President Barack Obama wants the G8 to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sarkozy said the possibility of strengthening sanctions against Syria's leaders was also being discussed.
According to a draft version of the summit declaration, which will be finalized tomorrow, the summit participants will call for an end to violent repression in Syria as well as in Libya.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's office said today that Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmudi had asked Moscow to mediate a ceasefire to the violent battle between the government and rebel forces.
The draft declaration also called for immediate resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Another protracted conflict discussed at the summit was the longstanding dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In a statement, Sarkozy, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said "the time has arrived for all the sides to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to take a decisive step towards a peaceful settlement."
The presidents of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are due to meet in June in the Russian city of Kazan for a summit on the frozen conflict.
Obama also held a bilateral meeting with Medvedev on the sidelines of the summit, after which the U.S. leader said the two were committed to finding an approach on a planned European-based U.S. missile shield that meets their security needs.
"We continued our discussions around the issue of missile defense and we committed to working together so that we can find an approach and configuration that is consistent with the security needs of both countries, that maintains the strategic balance, and deals with potential threats that we both share," Obama said.
Nevertheless, there was no breakthrough on the planned shield, which Moscow has long regarded as a threat to its own arsenal. The United States insists the planned shield would be for countering the nuclear threat posed by countries including Iran and North Korea.
Medvedev said Russia and the United States were not going to see eye-to-eye on the matter anytime soon.
"This issue [of missile defense] will most probably be dealt with in the future -- not now, but sometime around the year 2020. But we should lay down the right conditions for the future generations of politicians to be able to work together," Medvedev said.
But Russia did reach agreement with France to purchase four Mistral-class ships -- helicopter carriers designed to act as command vessels.
Medvedev made the announcement at a press conference alongside Sarkozy.
"We have just agreed our final positions on the well-known contract to acquire two Mistral helicopter carriers in France as well as the subsequent construction of two additional ones in the Russian Federation. All negotiations have concluded and we have agreed on everything and a contract will be signed in the nearest future," Medvedev announced.
Negotiations over the purchase began in 2009 but repeatedly stalled after France's NATO allies voiced concern about arming Russia with modern Western weaponry.
Georgia, which fought a bloody war with Russia in 2008, has expressed fears that Russia could use the powerful ships against it, and the Baltic states have also opposed the idea.
with agency reports