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Middle East Clouds Moscow Summit

Washington, April 19 (RFE/RL) - The world's most powerful leaders are gathering in Moscow today to prepare for a weekend summit on nuclear safety.

But events in the Middle East may cast a shadow on Moscow's moment in the sun as host to the G-7 conference of Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Germany, as well as the United States.

President Bill Clinton's first words on Russian soil dealt with the fighting between Israel and the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah group in Lebanon.

When he arrived in Saint Petersburg Thursday, Clinton said at the airport that he is dispatching Secretary of State Warren Christopher to the Middle East to try and find a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Christopher is in Holland today for long-planned talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in The Hague.

Originally he had planned to join Clinton in Moscow at the weekend and be present for the G-7 sessions, as well as Clinton's meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Sunday.

But the bloodshed in Lebanon has changed U.S. priorities. Christopher will now travel directly from The Hague to the Middle East. No details of his itinerary were disclosed yesterday but he is expected to go to Syria, as well as Israel and possibly make other stops in the region.

Clinton Thursday called on Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon to give diplomacy time to work and agree to an immediate ceasefire.

He also expressed condolences to the families of those killed when Israeli shells hit a U.N. base housing about 500 refugees in southern Lebanon. As many as 70 people died in the attack.

It was the worst incident in more than a week of fighting. Israeli shells have been bombarding Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon in retaliation for continuing Katyusha rocket attacks on civilians in northern Israel.

Reports said the U.N. base was only 300 meters away from where Katyushas were fired at the Israelis just minutes before the base was struck.

The G-7 summit is supposed to focus primarily on issues of nuclear safety. However, the Middle east crisis is already at least unofficially on the agenda.

Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac, who is co-chairing the nuclear summit with Yeltsin, plan to discuss joint diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov said Thursday that Moscow is also trying to solve the crisis and that he was "in close telephone contact" with his counterparts in France, Syria and Lebanon.

Syrian troops occupy Lebanon and Syrian president Hafiz al Assad is widely regarded as holding the key to Arab-Israeli peace in Lebanon and throughout the region.

Primakov, a former specialist in Mideastern affairs, Thursday criticized Israel and said Russia is very worried about events in Lebanon. "Israeli bombardments which are allegedly launched as a response to Hezbollah cannot be seen by us as an adequate response," he said.

Despite Christopher's absence at the summit talks, Clinton will not be bereft of his top policy advisers. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott will be at his side.

Talbott is widely regarded as the chief architect of U.S. policy towards Russia and the former Soviet republics. He's expected to be present also at the Saturday G-7 gathering.

The principal participants in addition to Clinton and Chirac will be Japan's Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Italy's Lamberto Dini, Britain's John Major, and Germany's chancellor Helmut Kohl.

To accommodate Russia's participation, the U.S. speaks of a P-8 group which stands for the political group of eight.

Christopher explains the distinction as drawing a line between economic and political discussions.

He said recently that the major industrial countries are the hardcore G-7 members, the only ones taking part in any economic discussions and that will not change in the forseeable future.

As Christopher put it: "The G-7 will remain the G-7 for purposes of the economic aspect," and that "in many respects Russia has not yet qualified for membership in the G-7."

But Christopher says "Russia's role in the world certainly entitles them to be part of the discussions in the P-8 group."

He says this is a political meeting of the G-7 that usually follows the economic talks. However, no economic sessions are scheduled for the Moscow summit.

The P-8 group will dine together in private tonight at the Kremlin and begin official proceedings tomorrow morning.

Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma has been invited for the first time to address the group and will join the final afternoon session.

U.S. officials have said Russia was initially opposed to the idea but eventually agreed with the Americans that Kuchma's presence was appropriate because of the summit's focus on nuclear reactor safety and the approaching tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.