MIDDLE EAST

EU ministers push for peace in Middle East

European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels on Sunday with their counterparts from the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey in an attempt to kick-start the peace process, urging Palestinian factions to unite.

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AFP - European Union nations called Sunday for divided Palestinian factions to unite so border crossings in the war-torn Gaza Strip can be opened and aid distributed.

EU foreign ministers, at talks in Brussels, also urged Arab nations to use their influence with Hamas, after its 22-day war with Israel in Gaza, and the Fatah faction of president Mahmud Abbas, the bloc's main interlocutor.

"The reunification of the Palestinian people with a single voice to speak to them, to speak for the West Bank and for Gaza is absolutely essential," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said: "It's time for the Palestinians to talk to each other.

"If we can't overcome the divisions in Palestinian society, it will be very difficult to move forward both with Gaza and the peace process," he said.

Hamas has control over the impoverished coastal strip of land -- Fatah controls the West Bank -- but was rocked in recent weeks by a massive Israel assault aimed at stopping militants firing rockets at civilians.

More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed and some 5,300 people wounded in Operation Cast Lead, launched on December 27. More than 4,000 homes were destroyed and 17,000 damaged.

Israel lost 10 soldiers and three civilians.

"A Palestinian consensus government is needed right now," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, ahead of the talks with counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Turkey and Norway.

"Without a consensus government, we will never organise the humanitarian aid and open Gaza," he said.

Egypt and to a lesser extent Norway have contacts with the Islamist militants of Hamas, and the ministers encouraged Cairo in particular to continue to play its leading role.

"We have to encourage and help the Egyptians," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

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