Blair says both sides must start peace talks

 

The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, delivered an uncompromising message to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict yesterday insisting the time to end violence and begin peace talks was "long overdue".

Ahead of the arrival in Israel today of the US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, Mr Blair made a statement to MPs in the House of Commons on what he described as the "genuine crisis" in the Middle East. Pledging the support of the international community, Mr Blair said the "hatreds are too deep and the wounds too raw" for the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve their differences alone.

Assessing the Middle East crisis following his US summit with President George Bush last weekend, Mr Blair also revived the idea of sending British observers to the region to ensure suspected Palestinian terrorists remained in prison.

"Both sides must see that violence is not and never will be the answer," Mr Blair told MPs. And Mr Blair warned that without "basic minimum steps" on both sides - Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories and a determination by the Palestinian Authority to eradicate terrorism - a political process could not get underway.

Earlier, the first Prime Minister's Questions after the Easter break were dominated by Labour backbench disquiet over the crisis in the Middle East and their concern that Britain would support US military action against Iraq.

More than 120 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion stating their concern about possible British military action in the region and following the weekly meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party yesterday in which Mr Blair sought to allay their fears, Labour hardliners insisted the Prime Minister had failed to reassure them.

During Prime Minister's Questions, the Labour MP, Mr John Owen Jones, warned Mr Blair that Iraq could not be tackled in isolation from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because such a strategy risked accusations of "double standards".

Mr Blair insisted that "the time for action" against Iraq had not yet arisen but he said the issue of weapons of mass destruction must be confronted.