Ceasefire is not far off, claims French president


DIPLOMATIC MOVES:FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy claimed last night a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip was “not far off” as he unexpectedly returned to Egypt after talks in Syria, which is the chief Arab ally of Hamas.

Mr Sarkozy flew from Beirut back to Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea for a second, unscheduled, meeting with President Hosni Mubarak, a major player in attempts to broker a truce between Israel and the Palestinians.

The move suggested the beginnings of shuttle diplomacy to call a halt to Israel’s 11-day onslaught. Mr Sarkozy gave no details, but said during a visit to French troops serving with the UN in south Lebanon: “I’m convinced there are solutions. We are not far from that. What is needed is simply for one of the players to start for things to go in the right direction.”

But diplomats said the UN Security Council, meeting in New York last night, was unlikely to agree a resolution on the crisis.

Earlier, a Hamas delegation held talks in Cairo with Gen Omar Suleiman, Mr Mubarak’s powerful intelligence chief, who has brokered previous ceasefires in Gaza and agreements between Hamas and its western-backed Fatah rival.

Egyptian officials were tight-lipped, warning that publicity could damage delicate negotiations. The meeting was Hamas’s first contact with a main regional player since fighting began.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said later that nothing had been agreed. “Israel is attempting to kill as many civilians as they can to exert pressure on the people of Gaza,” he said.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli official said Mr Sarkozy had presented Israel with a serious initiative, in partnership with Egypt, for a ceasefire. Discussions were focused on the size and equipment of an “international presence” to be deployed on the border between Egypt and Gaza.

Tony Blair, representing the Middle East quartet – the US, EU, UN and Russia – spoke of the need to cut off the supply of arms and money through tunnels under the border. “I think if there were strong, clear, definitive action on that, that would give us the best context to get an immediate ceasefire and to start to change the situation,” Mr Blair said.

Earlier in Damascus Mr Sarkozy called for pressure on Hamas to agree to a ceasefire. “I know the importance of Syria in this region and its influence on a number of players. I don’t have any doubt that President Bashar al-Assad will use all his weight to convince everyone to return to reason.”

Mr Assad condemned the “barbaric Israeli aggression” at a press conference with Mr Sarkozy. “Thirty per cent of the victims are children under the age of 10, and Gaza is now a concentration camp,” he said. Mr Assad made clear he supported the Hamas demand, repeated by its exiled political leader Khalid Mishal, that truce terms include lifting the blockade of the territory.

Mr Sarkozy went on to Beirut. On Monday he was in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. The Lebanese capital had originally been scheduled to be the last stop of his trip.

Calls for a Gaza ceasefire were expected to dominate a debate last night at the security council in New York, with attention focused on the US. Last weekend Washington blocked a Libyan-sponsored call for a truce, arguing that it had to be “durable”.

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was due to attend. But the US warned against “false expectations” of agreement, saying it will take more than “a day or so” to secure a lasting ceasefire. A UN resolution is not likely.

France, current chair of the council, has worked with Arab states to draft a resolution. As well as a ceasefire, it would urge lifting of the siege to allow humanitarian access to the Palestinian population, protection of Palestinian civilians, a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and a mechanism to monitor the truce.

In Israel the government made clear that preventing a new Hamas arms build-up was the “necessary foundation” of any new truce. “That is the make-or-break issue,” insisted Mark Regev, spokesman for prime minister Ehud Olmert. “Under no circumstances will we agree to a new calm that will allow them to increase their range to 60km so we have rockets falling on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was also due to address the security council. Mr Abbas has condemned Israel’s offensive but he has also been denounced by Hamas and its supporters for what they say is his acquiescence with, or even collaboration with, Israel.