ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — World leaders, managing to resolve sharp differences over an escalating crisis between Israel and Lebanon, declared Sunday that extremist groups in the region cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and must immediately halt their attacks.

The leaders of the world’s eight industrial powers issued a strong statement condemning Hezbollah militants but also urged Israel to exercise restraint in its military actions against Lebanon.

The statement said it was critical for Israel to “be mindful of the strategic and humanitarian consequences of its actions.” It called on Israel “to exercise utmost restraint” by seeking to avoid casualties among innocent civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure.

“It is a strong message with a clear political content,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.

The statement called for two captured Israeli soldiers to be freed, for the attacks on Israel by Hezbollah militants to stop and for Israel to end its military action. It also expressed support for the Lebanese government.

The crisis has dominated talks among President Bush and the other leaders attending the annual G-8 summit of major industrial countries. The Group of Eight is made up of the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and Canada.

Israeli warplanes began striking Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border on Wednesday and captured two Israeli soldiers. The guerrillas struck back at Israeli cities, and on Sunday fired a relentless barrage of rockets into the Israeli city of Haifa, dramatically escalating the conflict.

Bush and European leaders disagreed on who should be blamed for the violence, and those differences had to be overcome for the G-8 nations to issue a joint declaration.

While other G-8 leaders questioned whether Israel’s response to the capture of its soldiers went too far, Bush has placed blame squarely on Hezbollah and its state sponsors — Iran and Syria — and has declined to press Israel for a cease-fire.

Bush described the escalation of violence as “a moment of clarification” that should show the world how Hezbollah is disrupting the peace process.

In their statement, the leaders expressed “deepening concern about the situation in the Middle East, in particular the rising civilian casualties on all sides and the damage to infrastructure.” At least 130 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon, while about a dozen Israeli civilians have lost their lives.

Merkel, speaking to reporters, said: “We do not want to let terrorist forces and those who support them have the opportunity to create chaos in the Middle East. Therefore we place value on clearly identifying the cause and effect of events.”

She said the leaders believe that “first of all, that the Israeli soldiers must be returned unharmed, that the attacks on Israel must stop and that then, of course, also the Israeli military action must be ended.”

French President Jacques Chirac — who has been advocating a cease-fire — said the statement essentially endorses that position. Bush, however, does not support a cease-fire and has urged Israel to exercise restraint while defending itself.

Merkel, meanwhile, said that the leaders are “convinced that the government of Lebanon must be given all support and that the relevant U.N. resolutions regarding the south of Lebanon must also be implemented, and we also demand that in addition to the U.N. activities, another observation and security mission is established. That must be worked out through the U.N.”

The U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1559 in September 2004, calling for the disarmament of all militias and strict respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence. Hezbollah, which operates in southern Lebanon, has refused to disarm, saying it is a resistance movement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be more in line with European leaders who have condemned Israel’s attacks as excessive. Putin has said it was unacceptable for Hezbollah to take hostages and shell others’ territory, but also for Israel to use massive force in response.

“It is our impression that aside from seeking to return the abducted soldiers, Israel is pursuing wider goals,” Putin said. He did not elaborate.

Putin had molded this year’s G-8 summit — the first hosted by his country — to showcase Russia’s re-emergence on the world stage after a devastating economic collapse in 1998.

However, he failed to win a much-anticipated agreement with the U.S. on Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organization, the 149-nation group that sets the rules for world trade. The United States is the only country that has not signed off on Russia’s membership in the WTO, and Bush dashed Putin’s hopes for getting in now.


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