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Saturday March 6, 2010 4:06 PM (EST+7)
EU's Ashton seeks Gaza visit during Middle East tour

Read more: Catherine Ashton, European Union, EU, Gaza, Gaza seige

CORDOBA, Spain, March 6 (Reuters) - European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton aims to visit Gaza during a trip to the Middle East this month as she strives to better engage the EU in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ashton, who became EU's high representative for foreign affairs in December, is scheduled to go to Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan in mid-March but hopes to gain entry to Palestinian-ruled Gaza to assess the need for aid.

I have asked to go to Gaza, she told reporters during a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Cordoba in southern Spain.

We are providing a huge amount of aid into Gaza and I'm very interested to make sure that we are seeing the benefits of that aid going in.

Israel generally denies foreign officials entry to the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamist Hamas group, in its blockade of the territory.

However, Ireland's Micheal Martin last week became the first EU foreign minister to enter the Mediterranean coastal area in over a year, and on Friday urged the EU and other states to up pressure on Israel to end the blockade.

I will hope more visits take place. I will make a point (in Cordoba) that it is important to visit Gaza and see it first hand, he told reporters in Spain.

EU governments and the bloc's executive Commission are the largest aid donors to Gaza, which was severely damaged during an Israeli offensive launched in December 2008.


Ashton's trip to the Middle East comes at a crucial time for the region, with Washington aiming to relaunch peace talks within days and President Barack Obama's envoy George Mitchell due for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It also underscores efforts by the EU, which is part of the Quartet of Middle East negotiators with the United States, Russia and the United Nations, to raise its international clout and its role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

EU ministers gathered in Cordoba were to debate what role the bloc could play, and welcomed the US plan for four-month proximity talks via US negotiators.

Ashton said the EU was focused on supporting Palestinian institution-building, while backing U.S. mediation.

It is extremely important that we continue to boost that as the ... talks get going, she said.

The start of the long-awaited negotiations still hangs in the balance, however, with a Palestinian official saying President Mahmoud Abbas's party may not support the move.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt urged Ashton to demonstrate (EU) concern over Gaza by going in, and suggested some EU governments may want her to seek access through Egypt if she is turned down, a move likely to irritate Israel.

Egypt may be an alternative, Bildt said in response to a question what should Ashton do if Israel turns her down.







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