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G-8 Leaders Call for Return of Kidnapped Israeli Soldiers, End to Israeli Military Actions

Leaders of the biggest industrialized nations are calling for the return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and an end to Israeli military operations. They are backing a new U.N. observer force to end the latest round of Middle East violence.

G-8 leaders say creating conditions for a sustainable ceasefire requires the return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers, an end to the shelling of Israeli territory, a halt to Israeli military operations, an early withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the release of detained Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the leaders are sending a strong message about the need for all sides to end all violence. She says kidnapped Israeli soldiers should be returned unharmed and healthy, and the government of Lebanon should be supported.

The statement says the immediate crisis results from extremist forces trying to destabilize the region and frustrate the ambitions of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese people for democracy and peace.

It says extremist forces and those who support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns says that clearly refers to Syria and Iran, who have long backed Hezbollah and Hamas.

The statement says it is critical that, while Israel is exercising the right to defend itself, it be mindful of the strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions. It calls on Israel to exercise utmost restraint, seeking to avoid casualties among innocent civilians, damage to civilian infrastructure and any acts that would destabilize the Lebanese government.

That stops short of calls for an immediate ceasefire, which the Bush administration opposes. Burns says no one in the G-8 is calling for a ceasefire, but if Hezbollah stops shelling northern Israel and returns kidnapped Israeli soldiers, he believes Israel will stop its offensive and withdraw from Gaza.

While Chancellor Merkel says G-8 leaders will not allow themselves to be divided by the violence, there are divisions among leaders about the appropriateness of Israel's response.

Summit host Russian President Vladimir Putin says he gets the impression that Israeli aims go beyond the return of its kidnapped soldiers, and those aims, he says, can be resolved peacefully.

French President Jacques Chirac says it is imperative to end Israeli bombing of targets that he says have nothing to do with restoring peace.

"The whole of the G-8 expressed our grave reservations as to the disproportionate nature of Israel's provoked response, I must say," he said.

President Chirac also laid part of the blame on Lebanon's new democratically elected government for not sending its army into areas of southern Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah.

"The Lebanese must realize that there is no state that can exist, let alone a democratic one, that can exist or survive, if its government does not have full authority throughout its territory, and if it leaves armed militias to roam freely," he said. "We don't even know whom they are getting their instructions from, what they are being told to do, who is behind this, and they can, from one day to another, create the kind of havoc that we are witnessing today."

The G-8 statement welcomes what it says are the positive efforts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to restore peace, and welcomes efforts by the U.N. Security Council to establish a security and monitoring presence in the area.