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Mideast Quartet backs autumn peace talks


Lisbon : The Middle East Quartet has given its backing to US President George W. Bush's proposal to launch talks in the autumn on the construction of a Palestinian state.

United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Thursday announced the outcome of a two-hour meeting here.

The grouping of the US, UN, European Union (EU) and Russia also expressed support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in the middle of a confrontation with the rival Islamic militant movement Hamas.

The Quartet urged Israel and the Palestinians to adopt measures to increase mutual confidence and to work toward lasting peace in the region, with a Palestinian state coexisting with Israel and other neighbours.

The international conference proposed by Bush would constitute an important step toward peace, the Quartet said.

The list of participants was still open, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out, adding that they should accept agreements establishing the foundations of the two-state solution.

The meeting hosted by the Portuguese EU presidency brought together Ban, Rice, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as well as the Quartet's new envoy, former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Blair said that he was "very satisfied" with being tasked to achieve the construction of a Palestinian state that could talk to Israel on an equal footing, but that he would not offer proposals until September.

Several European countries have sought a strong role for Blair, whose mandate is limited to boosting the Palestinian infrastructure and economy, but the US does not want Blair to become an intermediary who might negotiate with Hamas.

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates said that the Quartet had "relaunched" the peace process in a meeting marking a turning point in the Middle East.

Socrates expressed confidence that Blair would bring "new dynamism" to the Quartet and to international peace efforts.

Speaking after talks earlier Thursday with Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, Rice described Abbas as an "excellent partner" for the international community and as the elected Palestinian president who had the authority to negotiate.

Rice said that Hamas had isolated itself internationally, placing itself outside international norms such as renouncing violence and accepting Israel's right to exist.

Amado also said he did not see the EU relating to Hamas, adding that the union had decided to support Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

Portugal mounted one of its biggest security operations ever around the meeting, though the number of participating police and soldiers was not given for "security reasons".