Berlin calls for ceasefire in Middle East crisis

21st July 2006, Comments 0 comments

21 July 2006, BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel's government called Friday for an immediate ceasefire in a bid to end the latest round of violence to engulf the Middle East as Berlin prepared to dispatch its foreign minister to the crisis-hit region.

21 July 2006

BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel's government called Friday for an immediate ceasefire in a bid to end the latest round of violence to engulf the Middle East as Berlin prepared to dispatch its foreign minister to the crisis-hit region.

But while German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said the release of Israeli soldiers was a necessary step to bring a speedy end to the crisis, he declined to provide a detailed response to media reports that Berlin's intelligence service was involved in efforts to free the soldiers.

"We help where we can", he said following the publication of a German newspaper report saying that German and Russian intelligence services were using contacts to Middle East extremists to secure the freedom of the Israeli soldiers.

The kidnapping of two of the soldiers by Hezbollah helped to spark the latest crisis to engulf the Middle East, which has triggered a mass exodus of refugees from Lebanon.

While Germany joined other countries in mounting a mass evacuation of its nationals from Lebanon, officials have been working on plans for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to visit the Middle East in what officials told the DPA would be in the near future.

Steinmeier's visit to the region is expected to include talks in Egypt and Israel as well a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

Plans for Steinmeier to travel to the Middle East also come in the run-up to an expected visit to the region next week by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

As the round of diplomatic efforts to end the fighting continued, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy held talks in Beirut Friday.

In his comments to reporters Friday the German press spokesman said that Berlin also wanted Hezbollah to cease its rocket attacks on Israel and for the Israeli Government to withdraw its troops from the Gaza Strip, which the Group of Eight also called for earlier this week.

But Wilhelm said it would not make sense to comment in any detail about German involvement in efforts to free the captured Israeli soldiers.

The German Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) - in tandem with Russian intelligence - is seeking to activate long-standing links to both Hamas and Hezbollah, said the Berlin Zeitung newspaper quoting unnamed officials.

Hamas is holding an Israeli soldier in Gaza and Lebanese-based Hezbollah has two Israeli soldiers it captured on a raid earlier this month.

Israel has launched major military operations into both Gaza and Lebanon in a bid to free its soldiers and destroy Hezbollah and Hamas infrastructure.

BND chief Ernst Uhrlau is an experienced negotiator with Mideast militants.

In January 2004, as the intelligence services coordinator to then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, he helped organise a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah in which a German Air Force jet flew a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers from Beirut to an airport in Germany.

A second Luftwaffe jet brought more than 30 of the over 400 prisoners to be released by Israel to Cologne for repatriation to Lebanon and other countries. The remaining prisoners were released on Israel's border to Palestinian territories.

A similar swap was arranged between Israel and the Hezbollah under chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1996 in which Israel released prisoners for the return of bodies of its soldiers.

Uhrlau's continued role in such deals was apparently spotlighted by Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor.

"It is now time for the same functionaries from Germany to get active again," said Palmor in a German ZDF TV interview on Thursday.

DPA

Subject: German news

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