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Russian Spies Try to Free Israeli Soldiers

Russian and German intelligence services are trying to help secure the release of three Israeli solders captured by Palestinian and Lebanese militants, Germany's DPA news agency reported Friday.

Both countries' spies have a history of dealing with Hezbollah and Hamas, and Germany's Federal Intelligence Agency has brokered prisoner swaps between Israel and Hezbollah in the past.

A spokesman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service declined to comment about the DPA report on Friday.

Spokespeople for the German spy agency and the German Foreign Ministry also declined to comment on whether the spy agency would undertake any role in the current crisis.

President Vladimir Putin said during the Group of Eight summit earlier this month that Russia was doing all it could to help secure the soldiers' release.

Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday called for a united international effort to end the conflict in Lebanon. During telephone talks, the two leaders emphasized "the need for concerted efforts by the international community to normalize the situation in the Middle East and highlighted the UN Security Council's role in the process," the Kremlin said in a statement.

The conversation, which took place at the German side's initiative, came a day after the Russian Foreign Ministry sharply criticized Israel for its offensive to secure the release of the soldiers and push Hezbollah guerrillas back from its border with Lebanon, saying the actions went "far beyond the boundaries of an anti-terrorist operation."

Also Friday, the Italian government said it would host an international conference on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would attend it.

The Russian Foreign Ministry stressed the urgency of the conference, saying its participants should be at the level of foreign ministers.

An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman said neither Syria nor Iran, accused by Israel of sponsoring Hezbollah, had been invited to Rome, and no one from Israel was expected to attend.

Moscow's statement also did not mention the three states.

Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko said in televised remarks that Lebanon had asked Moscow for humanitarian aid. He said there could be up to 500,000 internally displaced people in Lebanon, including around 200,000 children.

(The Moscow Times 24.vii.06)

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