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World leaders race to consolidate Mideast truce

As the warring sides agreed to a fragile cease-fire in Gaza, European and Arab leaders raced Sunday to lay groundwork for a longer-term agreement to prevent new fighting.
Image: French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, gestures as he chairs with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, gestures Sunday as he chairs with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, an international conference on the current crisis in the Palestinian territory of Gaza Strip at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.Amr Nabil / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the warring sides agreed to a fragile cease-fire in Gaza, European and Arab leaders raced Sunday to lay groundwork for a longer-term agreement to prevent new fighting.

Delivering humanitarian aid to rebuild the devastated Palestinian enclave emerged as a key goal from the summit in Egypt, along with choking off weapons smuggling into Gaza across Egypt's border and at sea — perhaps with an international naval force.

But the 1 1/2-hour gathering failed to deliver specifics on international monitors to prevent weapons smuggling. Israel wants monitors, but Egypt has refused to have them on its side of the border.

The world powers gathered in the resort of Sharm el-Sheik seized on word of unilateral cease-fires from both sides to try to prevent a return of the fighting that devastated the Gaza Strip over 22 days. The fighting has left most of Gaza's 1.4 million people — who largely already live in poverty — in desperate need of aid.

Increase in humanitarian aid
Britain announced it was tripling its humanitarian aid to Gaza. The government said in a statement the additional 20 million pounds, or about $29 million, would go toward rebuilding damaged homes and helping those injured in the violence.

The United Nations chief said the world body would send a team to assess humanitarian needs.

Egypt has firmly rejected any deployment of international monitoring forces on its side of the Gaza border, insisting its forces can police the frontier for weapons smugglers. President Hosni Mubarak repeated that stand Sunday, while welcoming help with equipment and technology.

Several European leaders spoke of sending forces to patrol from the sea instead.

"We must put an end to the arms traffic," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said. "Several of our countries have proposed ... to make available to Israel and Egypt all the technical, diplomatic and military — notably naval — means to help stop weapons smuggling into Gaza."

France, Germany and Britain delivered a joint letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mubarak on Saturday formally offering their help in stopping arms trafficking, said a European diplomat involved in the talks.

Stemming the flow of weapons
Such support would include maritime patrols including warships off Gaza's coast and enhanced efforts — along with the United States — to stem the flow of weapons to Gaza via the Indian Ocean and through smuggling tunnels beneath Egypt's border, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi said at the summit that he was willing to make Italy's paramilitary Carabinieri police force available for any maritime patrols.

Preventing Hamas from rearming is a key demand of Israel in any lasting deal. It argued when it launched its Dec. 27 offensive that Hamas had used a six-month truce earlier in the year to restock its arsenal. That truce unraveled as Hamas intensified rocket fire into southern Israel.

Hamas, for its part, complained that the truce earned them nothing in return, as Israel maintained its blockade of all but a trickle of aid and fuel into Gaza. And so, the opening of border crossings remains a central demand in a longer halt to the fighting.

The Arab League chief, who also attended the summit, said the smuggling and the blockade of Gaza were linked. The same tunnels used for weapons were a crucial lifeline for Gazans needing food and fuel, he said.

"Smuggling is a problem because of the suffocation in Gaza," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said.

Hundreds of Palestinians killed
The three weeks of fighting killed more than 1,250 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials. Thirteen Israelis died during the offensive, including four killed by rocket fire.

Israel announced later Sunday that it had begun to pull its troops out of Gaza.

Sarkozy said a full withdrawal was crucial. "There is no other solution to achieve peace," he said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said his country would help transport the injured to hospitals, rebuild Gaza's shattered buildings and clear away unexploded bombs.

"Today, humanitarian tragedy must not be met just by sympathy but by the immediate mobilization of aid," he said.

With its new pledge, total British aid to Gaza since the conflict began stands at nearly 27 million pounds, or about $40 million.

Without giving details of when and where, the French president said another summit for a "durable peace" would be held in the next few days.