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[Published: Sunday July 13 2008]

Sarkozy launches Mediterraneanunion

Paris , 14 July-(ANA)- FrenchPresident Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a new international body with 43 membernations aimed at ending conflict in the Middle East.

The Union for the Mediterranean will tackle issues such as regional unrest,immigration to pollution.

At the summit's opening in Paris, Mr Sarkozy saidits aim was to ensure the region's people could love each other instead ofmaking war.

Israeli and Palestinianleaders earlier expressed optimism about peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister EhudOlmert said Israeland the Palestinians have never been as close to a peace deal as they are now.

He was speaking after talkswith Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who said both sides were serious andwanted to achieve peace.

Mr Sarkozy urged MiddleEastern countries involved in long-running conflicts to end the deadly spiralof war and violence, as European nations had done by making peace which eachother during the 20th Century.

Mr Sarkozy says his presidencyof the EU is committed to progress on Middle Eastpeace

He said the grouping"will build peace in the Mediterranean together, like yesterday we builtpeace in Europe".

Comprising 27 EU members withstates from north Africa, the Balkans, Israeland the Arab world, the union's membership will include 756m people from Western Europe to the Jordanian desert.

Welcoming the presence of Arabstates alongside Israel, Greece alongside Turkeyand Morocco alongside Algeria, Mr Sarkozy said the group would not be"north against south, not Europe againstthe rest... but united".

He outlined the group'sdetermination to focus on concrete projects focusing on the environment,immigration, security cooperation, transport and education.

The French president wasclearly buoyed by the presence in Parisof so many Mediterranean rim leaders and said the union would be based onconcrete projects.

But critics have dismissed thenew union as lacking substance, and diplomats say there are continuingdisagreements over key issues such as how to address the Middle East peace process and a possible role for the Arab League.

The only leader boycotting the Paris meetingwas Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who has described the union as a new formof colonialism.

Mr Sarkozy played down theabsence of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, saying he had sent his brother as asenior representative.

He also dismissed suggestionsthe Syrian president had snubbed Israel by walking out of a speechby Ehud Olmert.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaderMahmoud Abbas said both he and Mr Olmert were serious and wanted peace.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert saidhis country had never been so close to reaching an agreement with thePalestinians as now.

He added that he would likedirect talks with Syria,but warned they must not hinder talks with the Palestinians. (ANA)

FA/ANA/14 July 2008---

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