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Middle East: EU Seeks Leverage To Quell Crisis

(CTK) BRUSSELS, July 17 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers, meeting today in Brussels, are expected to call for maximum restraint in the conflict between Israel and the Hizballah militia in Lebanon.

However, EU ministers appear to agree there is little the EU can do to help resolve the conflict in the short term. EU officials say there is no support for sanctions against Israel, while the EU only has limited contacts with the Iranian- and Syrian-supported Hizballah.

EU foreign ministers are unlikely today to go beyond expressing concern over the rapidly worsening conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Hizballah movement.

Arriving at the meeting in Brussels, Swedish Foreign Minister Jan Eliasson told journalists he believes the risk of the escalation of the conflict -- and the immersion of nearby Syria -- is great. He also said the Israeli strikes appear "disproportionate" to the threat posed by Hizballah.

"This is one of the subjects we have to discuss," Eliasson said. "The way the images seem to me, they seem to be disproportionate. And there is a great risk of escalation, not only of military escalation, but of political escalation."

EU officials say the EU's ministers will adopt a statement expressing "concern and condemnation" of the violence. It is also expected to demand an end to "disproportionate" actions, but refrain from criticizing Israel directly.

The EU's foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, was in Lebanon on July 16, where he met with the prime minister and other senior officials. Solana is expected back in Brussels today to brief EU foreign ministers.

Mounting Violence

Israel has been conducting increasingly extended raids against targets in Lebanon. Aerial attacks against what were said to be military installations in Beirut over the weekend were followed by missile strikes against targets in the northern cities of Tripoli and Tyre. Dozens of civilians are reported dead.

Meanwhile, Hizballah has fired rockets into the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, killing at least eight civilians.

The conflict began after Hizballah abducted two Israeli soldiers last week.

EU's Role In Stopping Violence

A number of EU ministers today described the situation as extremely volatile and dangerous. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, a onetime EU special envoy to the Middle East, warned of "irreversible" consequences.

There are fears the conflict could spread to Syria. Swedish Foreign Minister Eliasson said the EU must send a "strong message" to the parties to the conflict underscoring the danger. He described Lebanon as a country that has always been "a battleground for outside interests."

"I believe that no one can justify the present violence," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters today in Brussels. "Therefore, the prisoners must be freed, and all acts of violence must be stopped by both sides."

Asselborn said he believes the EU has a "decisive" role to play -- "not to resolve the conflict from Brussels" -- but in demanding an end to the violence, facilitating negotiations for a cease-fire, and promoting political dialogue in the longer term.

Asselborn said a statement issued over the weekend by leaders at a summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized nations in St. Petersburg shows international unity on the issue can be reached.

However, there is little to suggest the EU will be able to go beyond a statement of concern in the short run.

One EU diplomat said "no one" in the EU is ready to talk about possible EU sanctions against in Israel in whatever form. On the other hand, the EU possesses only minimal channels of communication to Hizballah.

The EU's relations with Hizballah's main foreign supporters, Syria and Iran, have also deteriorated in recent months.