Bush apologizes to Blair over arms shipments to Israel via U.K.

By Haaretz Staff and Agencies


Av 4, 5766

U.S. President George W. Bush apologized on Friday to British Prime Minister Tony Blair after Britain complained Washington had not followed correct procedures for sending bombs to Israel via a British airport, a British official said.

Blair's spokesman told reporters traveling with Blair that Bush raised the issue briefly at the start of his meeting with Blair at the White House.

"President Bush did apologize for the fact that proper procedures were not followed," the spokesman said. "President Bush as part of the introduction said 'I'm sorry there was a problem.' It was literally that," the spokesman told reporters aboard his plane.

The British government had formally complained to the United States over its use of a British airport for transiting bombs to Israel.

British media reported on Wednesday that aircraft carrying "bunker-busting" bombs from the United States to Israel refuelled at Prestwick airport in Scotland over the weekend.

The United States denied on Thursday that it had broken British air transport procedures after London complained about U.S. flights through a Scottish airport taking bombs to Israel.

A newspaper said Britain had agreed to allow Washington to fly more weapons to Israel via its airports despite Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett saying she was "not happy" about Washington failing to comply with procedures for such flights.

Blair has faced mounting criticism at home as the only major world leader to join the United States in refusing to call for Israel to immediately stop its two-week bombing campaign of Lebanon.

Beckett said on Wednesday she had complained to Washington because the United States had not followed procedure for flying cargo loads of bombs bound for Israel through British airports.

"We have already let the United States know that this is an issue that appears to be seriously at fault, and we will be making a formal protest if it appears that that is what has happened," she said in Rome after a Lebanon crisis meeting.

Newspapers have said two Airbus cargo jets loaded with U.S. bunker-busting bombs landed at Prestwick. British officials have not commented on the flights in detail but do not dispute those accounts.

"It appears that insofar as there are procedures for handling that kind of hazardous cargo, irrespective of what they are, it does appear that they were not followed," Beckett said.

But British officials have since seemed to row back from that position, saying authorities are still studying whether any rules were broken. The Foreign Office refused to allow its spokesman to discuss the subject on the record on Thursday.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Joe Carpenter said Washington had double checked its records of all flights since the reports emerged and found that it had not broken any procedures, in Britain or anywhere else.

"It's our policy that U.S. military flights and those contracted on our behalf comply with existing bilateral agreements," he said. "There have been no recent deviations from those procedures."

The Evening Standard newspaper said London had given Washington the all-clear to continue more Israel-bound arms flights after sorting out the proper procedures. The Foreign Office would neither confirm nor deny that report.

Blair's backing for President Bush in refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon is unpopular at home. Blair has said an agreement on an international force and other conditions are needed before a ceasefire can be called.

He was mocked by the media after he was overheard by an open microphone at a summit offering his services to Bush to go to the Middle East ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush didn't accept the offer, and Blair didn't go.

U.S. use of British airports has been an issue in the past, with Blair being accused by parliamentarians and human rights groups of allowing Washington to transport prisoners over British territory outside of normal extradition procedures.

Blair says his government has broken no laws over such "extraordinary renditions."

Bush: Rice to return to Mideast
Bush said Friday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would return to the Middle East on Saturday, with a cease-fire proposal package to present to Israel and Lebanon.

Speaking at joint press conference with Blair after the two met in Washington on the two-week long conflict, the president said that Rice will be charged with working with Beirut and Jerusalem to come up with an acceptable United Nations resolution.

"Her instructions are to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable UN Security Council resolution that we can table next week," Bush said.

The president also stressed the need for an international force to be deployed in Lebanon to assist the Lebanese army in efforts to regain control of southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah has been the dominant military presence since the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the area in May 2000.

"We agree that a to augment the Lebanese army as it moves the south of that country. An effective multinational force will help speed delivery of humanitarian relief," Bush said.

He said the plan developed by he and Blair would "make every effort to achieve a lasting peace out of this process."

"This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East," the president added. "Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region."

"In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors are willing to kill and use violence to stop the spread of peace and democracy," he said. "They're not going to succeed."

He added: "The stakes are larger than just Lebanon."

Blair said he and Bush agreed a UN resolution is needed as soon as possible to stop hostilities in Lebanon.

The prime minister said it was important not only to get a cessation of violence but to use the opportunity to set out and achieve a "different strategic direction for the whole of that region."

"We've got to deal with the immediate situation" but also realize that the violence in recent weeks is part of a bigger picture that must be addressed," said Blair.

He told reporters that three steps were being implemented to end the conflict - the return of Rice to the region, a meeting of Monday on the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon, and a UN resolution as soon as possible to allow a cessation of hostilities.

"Nothing will work, unless, as well as an end to the immediate crisis, we put in place the measures necessary to prevent it from occurring again," Blair said. "We take this opportunity to set out and achieve a different strategic direction for the whole of that region."

He urged Iran and Syria to stop supporting terrorism and become responsible mmebers of the international community.

But Blair also revealed the difficulty of restoring calm to a long-volatile region. "This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work," he said.

Britain and France said earlier Friday that they would press for a UN resolution to end the violence between Israel and Hezbollah.

Blair's spokesman said the prime minister would seek to "increase the urgency" of diplomacy to end the violence between Israel and Hezbollah in his talks with Bush in Washington.

Speaking aboard Blair's plane as it flew to Washington, the spokesman said Britain hoped a UN resolution could be in place by next week. He said Britain sought "to increase the urgency, the pace of diplomacy, in identifying the practical steps that are necessary to bring about a cease-fire on both sides."

French President Jacques Chirac said Friday that France will press for the rapid adoption of a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, his office said.

Meanwhile, Portugal said Friday it would be willing to join any European Union peacekeeping force in an effort to stop the fighting.

"Portugal is willing to, within the EU, help find a strong solution for this conflict," said Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado.

Italy, Germany, Ireland, France and Turkey have said they are considering
joining a United Nations-run multinational force.

However, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday
cast doubt on major UN involvement in any international force in Lebanon, saying more professional and better-trained troops were needed for such a volatile situation.

Rice: I'll return to region
Rice said Friday she will return to the Middle East to work with others on trying to bring an end to the fighting.

"I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there," Rice told a news conference in Malaysia, where she has been attending a conference on Asian issues.

The United States, adopting a diplomatic stance that has not been embraced by allies, has been insisting that any cease-fire to the violence over the last three weeks must come with conditions.

Otherwise, Rice and other U.S. officials have said repeatedly, they fear just a repetition of the on-again, off-again violence of recent years.

Asked what she hoped to accomplish when she does return to the region, Rice said, "We hope to achieve an early end to this violence, that's what we hope to achieve."

"That means that we have to help the parties establish conditions that will make it possible for an early cease-fire that, nonetheless, does not return us to the status quo," she said. Referring to a summit about Lebanon that was held in Rome, she said: "I think everybody in Rome agreed that we can't return to the circumstances that led us to this in the first place."

Rice said the terms and conditions of a such a cease-fire would involve "a multinational force under UN supervision" that would have a mandate to enforce a peace agreement.

Rice's spokesman, Adam Ereli, took strong issue with an assertion by Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who said the failure of world leaders to call for an immediate cease-fire at a summit in Rome gave Israel a green light to carry on with its campaign to crush Hezbollah.

"Any such statement is outrageous," Ereli said. "The United States is sparing no effort to bring a durable and lasting end to this conflict."

Rice has spent three days dashing to high-stakes meetings in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Rome, and then traveled to Malaysia on Thursday for the long-planned conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

At her news conference Friday, Rice said that before returning to the region, she wanted to confer with aides Elliot Abrams and David Welch, both U.S. envoys for the region, to work on a second trek there.