Ashton says unable to attend Mideast peace talks

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European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Saturday she could not attend next month's Middle East peace talks because of a China trip, and she had no place there anyway.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday the EU should be at the table when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders resume direct peace talks in Washington on Thursday.

"It would be a shame if there was no European representation," Kouchner said, suggesting it should be Ashton.

He referred to the fact that EU countries are the major contributors of Palestinian aid, but the EU plays second fiddle diplomatically behind the United States.

The US-mediated talks, the first since Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip in December 2008, will also be attended by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

In a reply to Kouchner, Ashton said she understood his position but she would be in China, as the French foreign minister was aware, her spokesman said.

This was a key trip ahead of an EU summit in September focusing on strategic partnerships with China, the spokesman said, and Ashton would be meeting top Chinese officials.

While she had been invited to an informal dinner ahead of the talks, it clashed with the China trip, and in any case her appearance there "would have no substantial influence on the talks," which were "strictly between the two parties."

"Both sides already know the importance of the EU in this process and acknowledge ... Ashton's personal involvement and time invested in getting to this point," a statement said.

"All those involved in this process know they can call on her anytime."

For Ashton and the EU as a whole, "the focus is on a successful outcome of the talks, particularly the first round and the focus should not be on the choreography or who goes to Washington or not."

"Also it must be made clear we are only at the start of the process, many more talks will have to take place before we can reach, as hoped, a solution," she added.

The EU will "still have plenty more opportunities to contribute to the process and will be called upon to help support the talks."

The EU is part of the so-called Middle East Quartet, working along with Russia, the United Nations and the United States to try to bring peace to the region.

Ashton said former British prime minister Tony Blair would represent the Quartet in Washington, but neither UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon nor Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would be there, "as they respect that this is the best way forward and the spotlight should be firmly focused on the talks themselves."

She said she "looks forward to a successful first round of talks" and would be debriefed personally by US Middle East envoy Senator George Mitchell and Blair immediately afterwards.

"She will then inform EU member states of the outcome and next steps."

© 2010 AFP

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