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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 July 2006, 18:08 GMT 19:08 UK
G8 blames Mid-East 'extremists'
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel briefed reporters on the G8 statement
Leaders of the G8 nations have blamed extremist forces for the latest crisis in the Middle East, but called on Israel to end military operations.

The statement - issued after hours of difficult negotiations - calls for the release of three captured Israeli soldiers - one in the Gaza Strip.

It also urges militants to stop shelling of Israeli territory.

Leaders also urged Israel to withdraw its forces from Gaza and to release arrested Palestinian politicians.

The leaders of the world's eight top economic powers are meeting in St Petersburg.

The statement, described to reporters by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, revealed concern over the rising civilian casualties on both sides.

The world's seven richest nations - the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada have met annually since 1975
Russia joined in 1998, turning the G7 into the G8
2006 summit to be held in St Petersburg - the first time Russia has hosted the G8
Energy security, infectious diseases and education are on Russia's agenda
Mid-East crisis, Iran, North Korea and international terrorism are also likely to be discussed

It blamed the immediate crisis on "extremist forces", including Hamas and Hezbollah, which it said wanted to destabilise the region and frustrate the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese peoples' aspirations for democracy and peace.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus says the leaders also set out steps that the Lebanese government, Israeli authorities and Palestinian politicians must take to create peace.

The G8 gave its full support to the UN mission to the region in implementing its proposals, and to efforts by the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

The statement follows earlier divisions between US and French policy over the Middle East crisis.

US President George W Bush insisted Israel was defending itself against terror and that Hezbollah was the root of the crisis.

But French President Jacques Chirac spoke out in defence of Lebanon.

Watch G8 leaders' reactions to the Middle East conflict

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