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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Canadian FM blames Syria and Iran for violence in Lebanon

OTTAWA, July 18, 2006 (AFP) - As thousands of Canadians prepared to flee violence in Lebanon, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay on Monday took aim at Syria and Iran for fueling the crisis while calling on Hezbollah to cease aggression against Israel.

"The kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers was the impetus for the crisis," MacKay said in an interview with AFP.

"Hezbollah aggravated the situation. They initiated it and let's be frank, they oppose peace in principle. They're aggressive and provocative and now civilians, including Canadian civilians, are paying the price," he said.

Israeli forces have pounded targets in Lebanon since the middle of last week after the Hezbollah militant group captured two Israeli soldiers and began launching its own barrage of rockets into Israel.

Canada is sending six chartered ships in likely its biggest rescue operation since World War II to evacuate thousands of Canadians trapped in the conflict between Israeli forces and Lebanese militants, officials said.

Almost 50,000 Canadians, many with dual Lebanese citizenship, have been caught in the clash, MacKay estimated. Eight Canadians died in attacks.

Asked if Iran and Syria were fueling the crisis, MacKay replied: "I think there is no question.

"There is support in both of those countries for Hezbollah and Hamas. Some of the weapons used by both groups were traced to these countries."

On Monday, Canadian media said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government would likely face a voter backlash over his dogged support for Israel and his refusal to blame the Jewish state for the Canadian deaths.

Harper told reporters at the Group of Eight summit that Israel had been "victim of the initial attack," referring to the abduction of two Israeli soldiers and repeated rocket attacks into Israel. Earlier, he said the Israeli military response was measured.

Over the weekend, thousands in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal protested Harper's position on the Middle East conflict.

Mayssoon El-Akhras, the sister of one of the dead Canadians, in tears at a press conference, begged Harper "to take our side and say the truth about Israel, say that Israel destroyed my family home in Lebanon and Hezbollah was trying to protect it."

MacKay told AFP he was preoccupied with the evacuation of Canadians "and not thinking about the domestic political situation."

He stressed that all parties in the Middle East conflict needed to show the "utmost restraint."

"Emphasis has to be on the de-escalation of violence... the return of Israeli soldiers and shelling of Israeli territory stopped. That would lead to further cooperation and efforts that would bring us toward a diplomatic solution," he said.

MacKay also noted it was too soon to discuss the possibility of sending peacekeepers to the region, saying: "We're not at that point yet.
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