Gazans mob French minister in 'war crimes' mix-up

21st January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Angry Palestinians mobbed French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie as she visited Gaza on Friday in a mix-up over a "war crimes" quote mistakenly attributed to her.

On her first visit to Gaza since taking over as foreign minister in November, Alliot-Marie was twice ambushed by demonstrators who hurled eggs and shoes, enraged over reports of a remark which she had never made.

After the protests subsided, France's top diplomat pressed on with her visit, issuing an urgent call for Israel to end its blockade on the impoverished strip, which is home to 1.5 million people.

The protests began early when dozens of protesters waving signs reading "Get out of Gaza" ambushed the French convoy shortly after it entered the strip.

Many hammered on the minister's car with their fists. Others hurled shoes and one jumped on top of her car in a protest over a statement which was mistakenly attributed to Alliot-Marie when she met with the parents of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

At the meeting on Thursday, father Noam Shalit asked Alliot-Marie to press the European Union to "condemn as a war crime" the detention of his son, an AFP correspondent said.

Shortly afterwards, however, Israel's public radio posted a story on its Arabic-language website mistakenly quoting Alliot-Marie as saying the EU "must condemn the war crime that Hamas is committing by keeping Gilad Shalit in captivity."

Women and children were among the protesters, many of whom were holding up photographs of family members imprisoned in Israel. Others held up banners with a red "banned" symbol over a picture of the French minister, as a man with a loudspeaker angrily denounced the "war crimes" statement.

As the protest converged on the convoy, two terrified children were flung to the ground in front of the wheels of the lead vehicle, where they lay crying for several minutes before being hauled away by their families.

Hamas police eventually cleared the road allowing the convoy to continue.

"There were between 30 and 50 demonstrators, it wasn't very serious," the minister said later. "Among the demonstrators were mothers whose sadness I can understand, but there were others who had other intentions."

She then went to Al-Quds hospital, only to be ambushed for a second time by protesters, who shoved and jostled the security detail surrounding her as she went in.

One hurled a shoe which was deftly caught by one of the bodyguards as Alliot-Marie ducked out of the way. Others pelted eggs at her car.

Alliot-Marie was unharmed but another woman in the delegation, an aide to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the peace process, got hit on the head by a camera.

Escaping the crowds, the delegation retreated to the French Cultural Centre where Alliot-Marie called for Israel to lift its Gaza blockade.

"The Gaza blockade creates poverty and feeds violence," she said. "In the name of the freedom and dignity that we all share, France calls on Israel to put an end to it."

The minister acknowledged Israel had recently taken "positive" steps to ease the blockade, but urged it to "go further" by easing restrictions on imports and exports, and allowing free movement.

She met with officials at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees but did not meet with any officials from Hamas, in line with EU policy.

Leaving Gaza, the delegation paid a brief visit to the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, which has been targeted by thousands of Palestinian rockets over the years, before heading to Egypt for talks.

On Saturday, Alliot-Marie was to fly to Amman for talks with Jordanian officials and with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

The Gaza protests erupted after the "war crimes" quote was picked up by Hamas, which issued an angry statement slamming the remarks attributed to the French minister as "biased" and calling on Paris "to review such positions which do not serve the French role in the region."

© 2011 AFP

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