UN Chief to Tour Mideast, Press for Cease-Fire

Frustrated and anguished at the escalating violence in Gaza, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he's embarking on a Mideast tour to press for Israel and Hamas to immediately stop fighting and allow humanitarian aid into the devastated Palestinian territory.

Ban said he plans to step up diplomatic efforts to get both sides to adhere to a U.N. cease-fire resolution calling for an end to Israel's air and ground offensive in Gaza and Hamas' rocketing of southern Israel.

"To both sides, I say: Just stop, now," the U.N. chief told a news conference. "Too many people have died. There has been too much civilian suffering. Too many people, Israelis and Palestinians, live in daily fear of their lives."

Since Israel launched its offensive on Dec. 27, Ban said he has been on the phone constantly with top officials in the Middle East, Europe and the United States promoting a cease-fire. But he said phone calls aren't a substitute for direct talks with leaders who have influence on the parties.

The secretary-general leaves New York Tuesday and will meet senior officials in Egypt and Jordan Wednesday, then head to Israel, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait where he said an Arab League summit may add an extra session to tackle the Gaza conflict. His itinerary does not include a stop in Gaza because of the ongoing conflict.

"My goal is to step up the pace of our joint diplomatic efforts and ensure that urgent humanitarian assistance reaches those in need," Ban said.

The secretary-general said he was trying to visit all countries that "can make a difference."

Ban said he will be discussing an immediate cease-fire with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who is hosting separate talks with the Israelis and Hamas, and pressing Israel's leaders, and the presidents of Turkey and Syria, who have influence with Hamas, for a halt to the fighting.

He added that he has been discussing the conflict with the Americans, Israel's closest ally, every day.

Ban said he would also be encouraging diplomatic initiatives — including one by Mubarak — to open border crossings, strengthen border security, provide humanitarian assistance, protect the Palestinian population in Gaza, and reunite Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

"Most of all," Ban said, "I want to demonstrate my deep concern and empathy for the innocents caught in these terrible circumstances, both in Israel and the occupied territory (Gaza)."

Ban said the United Nations maintains diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas whom he will visit in Ramallah, but U.N. officials have only technical contact with Hamas representatives in Gaza, especially on humanitarian issues.

"I urge again that Hamas militants — they must stop, they must look to the future of the Palestinian people," he said.

The Security Council resolution adopted Thursday by a vote of 14-0, with the U.S. abstaining, "stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza."

Ban said what is essential now is an immediate cease-fire which can then be followed by negotiations to make it durable.

"In the name of humanity and international law, this resolution must be observed," he said.

The U.N. chief will return to New York on Jan. 20, just before Barack Obama's inauguration.

When he spoke to the president-elect after his election, Ban said they agreed to an early meeting after his inauguration — and he said his first priority will be to tell Obama that his administration should make Middle East peace a priority.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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