ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, AP – World leaders tore up a carefully prepared summit agenda Saturday and turned their attention to a growing crisis in the Middle East, hoping to reach common ground on ways to stop the fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was grateful that President Bush came early for bilateral talks that Putin said would allow them to synchronize their watches on a host of world crises and provide a “boost to the G-8 summit.”
Putin designed this year’s Group of Eight economic summit, the first held in Russia, to showcase his country’s re-emergence on the world stage after a devastating economic collapse in 1998. He had hoped to focus on energy security, the fight against infectious diseases and education.
But officials were quickly clearing discussion time to address a new explosion of violence in the Middle East. The G-8 countries — the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada — were expected to issue a joint declaration on the Lebanon crisis, but drafters of the document were faced with dealing with differences between the U.S. and the other countries over how to proceed.
In a joint news conference with Putin, Bush said Saturday that “all parties want the violence to stop” in Lebanon. He blamed the Islamic militant group Hezbollah for escalating the violence and said Israel has a right to defend itself.
Other G-8 leaders were more critical of Israel, condemning what they saw as an overreaction that has caused dozens of civilian deaths and risked a major escalation of bloodshed in the Middle East.
Putin said that while Israel’s concerns about the abductions of its soldiers and missile strikes were justified, “the use of force should be balanced.”
Italian Premier Romano Prodi called Italy’s use of force “disproportionate” and appealed to all parties to use restraint.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, attending his sixth and final summit, said he understood Israel’s anger but said it should not seek “an eye for an eye.”
French President Jacques Chirac was even harsher in his comments, saying “One could ask if today there is not sort of a will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, its communications.”
Israel’s war planes began striking Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others Wednesday in a cross-border raid into Israel. Since Wednesday, Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israel.
Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said he believed the G-8 leaders would overcome differences to reach a joint position on stopping the violence.
“I think it is coming together. What we need is a strategy that can achieve the objective,” Hadley said. He said there was a need to “put maximum pressure on Hezbollah to stop the rocket attacks” on northern Israel.
The other G-8 leaders flew into St. Petersburg for three days of discussion, beginning with an opulent dinner at a former czarist palace on Saturday night. Bush and the other leaders were staying in guest houses on the grounds of Konstantin Palace on the Gulf of Finland, an area sealed off by heavy security.
Anti-globalization protesters vowed to march in St. Petersburg despite an official ban and warnings from a top Kremlin official against such defiance. Authorities have limited the activities of protesters to a stadium in a hard-to-reach part of the city.
As the summit got underway, the United States and Russia announced they had failed to reach a deal that would allow the U.S. to back Russia’s application to join the 149-nation World Trade Organization, which sets the ground rules for global trade.
Both U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Russian Economic and Trade Minister German Gref said the few remaining differences could be resolved by the fall.
Putin had hoped a deal at the time of the summit would highlight the rebound of Russia’s economy since the devastating collapse of the ruble, the country’s currency, during the global financial crisis of 1998.
Bush said trade negotiators would continue working toward a deal but that his administration wants firm commitments that would win support for the deal in Congress. The United States is pressing Russia to open its markets more to American products and halt the piracy of American movies, music and computer programs that U.S. companies claim are costing them billions of dollars in lost sales.