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"UK acting quickly on Lebanon evacuation" - Blair

"UK acting quickly on Lebanon evacuation" - Blair

There are now six ships in the Middle East ready to help British nationals leave the crisis-hit area, Tony Blair confirmed this morning.

The first 60 people were taken out yesterday, he said, and a rapid deployment team are working in Beirut.

A "big logistical operation" was underway with the government doing everything it could get people out as quickly as possible.

G8 "overshadowed" by events in Middle East - PM
Air strikes in Lebanon began last week after the seizure of two Israeli soldiers, leading to rising tensions in the region.

Mr Blair went on:

"Unless there is some negotiated process then we are not going to be able to get a cessation of hostilities, and so the issue is how we manage to bring that about, and that is something I am discussing, as you can see, with close allies."

Mr Blair was speaking at a press conference with the Croatian PM Ivo Sanader, who was in Number 10 for talks this morning.

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Read the transcript
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Tony Blair:

Good Morning. I am absolutely delighted to welcome Ivo here today and to say how delighted I am at the state of the relations between Croatia and the UK. It is now a very strong relationship indeed. We were honoured to be the EU President at the time when accession negotiations were opened with Croatia and those are proceeding well. I think it is right that the science research technology chapter has already been closed in those negotiations. I would like to pay tribute to your leadership and to the huge steps forward that have been made in Croatia in recent times.

I look forward very much to a time when Croatia is a member of the European Union and a member of NATO, we support both fully. The criteria for the European Union of course have got to be met, but I know that you are making every effort to do that. It is a very important time for your country, but I think the fact that you have been able to make such changes as a result of European Union membership is a tribute obviously to the pull of the European Union, but also a tribute to your leadership Ivo. So many thanks indeed for coming here today and it is a great pleasure because I think it is the first time ...

Mr Sanader:

Yes, the Croatian Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister meeting officially.

Tony Blair:

Is that right? OK, well there you go, the first time for the two Prime Ministers to meet officially either here or in Zagreb, so an historic moment for both of us. So thank you for coming.

Mr Sanader:

Thank you Prime Minister, dear Tony, for your hospitality and for your position which has always strongly advocated the enlargement of the European Union, especially always very supportive for Croatia and for me, for my government, in order to meet all criteria in order to be able to start the accession negotiations. I remember we met for the first time in 2004 at the signing ceremony of the constitutional treaty in Rome, and you encouraged me to do my job and everything will be OK in regards to EU negotiations with Croatia. We did it and I am very grateful to you personally, to your government for supporting us even now.

The UK is one of the leading countries in advocating enlargement of the European Union, including Croatia. I am very grateful to you also for your support of our activities in the region, because we shall not forget our region, Croatia will not forget the region by acceding the EU and becoming a member from the region. We are very interested in how the region will develop and all open issues will be resolved. So we will be very active, we are very active, we are sharing this process of cooperation in southeast Europe for one year and we believe that all southeastern European countries have this perspective of future EU membership.

Our bilateral relations are very well. I extended an invitation to Prime Minister Blair to visit Croatia officially when he finds time, and again I look forward to working closely with you in this process of negotiations, and the target is full membership of Croatia in the European Union and NATO. We know that the Riga Summit will not be an enlargement summit, but we do expect some encouraging words for Croatia for the future membership of NATO. Thank you very much Tony.

Question:

Prime Minister, can I ask you about the Middle East. There are thousands of British nationals in Lebanon who are now very concerned for their own safety and want to get out. Given that the French have already evacuated about 1,000 of their people, shouldn't you have acted sooner to try to get these people out and how quickly is that going to start?

Tony Blair:

We have acted as quickly as we possibly can. We have taken out of Lebanon the first 60 people. That was done yesterday. The first ship will come today, so obviously we can take far larger numbers out now. We have around about 6 ships now in the region, we have a rapid deployment team in Beirut, we will do everything we can to get people out as quickly as we can. Obviously this has been a big logistical operation and we have also had to put reinforcements into Cyprus as well where people will be taken. But I can assure you we are doing absolutely everything we can to make sure that the evacuation happens as swiftly and as properly as possible.

Question:

Will you be going to the Middle East?

Tony Blair:

Look, let me just explain something to you. If we want to bring this situation into a better place, the only way we are going to do so is to be able to bring about the conditions in which a cessation of hostilities occurs. Everyone wants it to stop now, of course we do, you can see the terrible tragic loss of life that is happening. It's an appalling situation and a dangerous situation for the whole of the region, for the whole of the world. But unless there is some negotiated process then we are not going to be able to get a cessation of hostilities, and so the issue is how we manage to bring that about, and that is something I am discussing, as you can see, with close allies.

Question:

I am interested in how quickly you think Croatia could go forward within the EU, having in mind that continental Europe is tired of enlargement and the UK is mainly focused on Turkey. Did you discuss this concern with the Croatian Prime Minister?

Tony Blair:

Of course we discussed this in detail. But let me make one thing clear, there is no political block at all on Croatia coming in. That political decision has been taken. Europe wants Croatia as a full member of the European Union. Britain wants Croatia as a full member of the European Union. The sole question is meeting the criteria - meet the criteria and you come in. That process is the same for Croatia or any other country. I would say that it is very clear from the changes that have been made in Croatia over the past couple of years that the determination and the leadership is there to have this done. Now there is no point in picking out arbitrary dates at the moment, but as soon as the criteria are met Croatia should come in and there should certainly be no political block on it, or no sense that Croatia has to wait for other countries to get to the same stage as Croatia. No, each country is treated on its merits, the merits of Croatia are very clear and I just wish you well in the endeavour to make sure that the criteria are met.


ENDS

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