EU sending two Middle East peace missions

PHILIPPA RUNNER
02.01.2009 @ 09:30 CET

The new Czech EU presidency and France will next week send two overlapping
peace missions to the Middle East, amid sensitivities on Prague's capability to lead Europe.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told national TV on Thursday (1 January) that an EU delegation will visit Egypt, Israel, Palestine's West Bank and Jordan early next week to try to broker a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war.

Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg will lead the team, comprising French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, EU top diplomat Javier Solana and external relations commissioner
Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The trip comes at the same time as French President and outgoing EU chairman Nicolas Sarkozy's mission to Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, with the Schwarzenberg and Sarkozy delegations to hold a joint meeting with Palestine President Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank on Monday.

Mr Sarkozy on Thursday - the first official day of the Czech EU presidency -also met Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni in Paris to push for an end to hostilities.

"It is up to the European Union to take over the initiative [on the Middle East]," Mr Topolanek said on the Czech TV show. "I spoke with [Mr Sarkozy] for a long time and we dealt with the problem [of the overlapping trips] in detail."

The Elysee Palace said the two leaders had "agreed perfect co-ordination regarding their efforts on visits to the region" during a phone call in which Mr Sarkozy also pledged French support for the Czech EU presidency.

The niceties come after the French EU presidency in October annoyed Prague by suggesting Mr Sarkozy should stay on as a quasi-EU president in charge of co- ordinating eurozone member state policy.

EU and French officials in anonymous statements to press have questioned the Czech Republic's capability to lead the EU on big foreign policy issues, citing eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus as an example of the country's unruly political scene.

Mr Klaus in a New Year statement on Thursday took a conciliatory tone on Europe. He urged people to vote in the European Parliament elections and said the Czech EU chairmanship is a chance to "influence" the EU and "build a truly democratic space."

Gaza violence continues

Meanwhile, the Sarkozy-Livni meeting in Paris failed to see Israel move closer to EU calls for a ceasefire.

"Here [he ighting continued early on Friday morning. Four Hamas rockets hit the Israeli town of Ashkelon, wounding two people, while Israeli jets bombed 15 Hamas-linked houses, killing two and wounding 12.

Palestine says 425 people have been killed over the past seven days, with over 2,000
wounded. Four people have died on the Israel.

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