US President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin appealed yesterday for an end to the raging violence in the Middle East, but clashed on democracy and failed to clinch a key trade deal in talks in St Petersburg.
Meeting ahead of a G8 summit of world leaders, the presidents papered over their differences on Israel's offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, which have left scores of people dead and triggered fears of a regional war.
Bush put the blame firmly on the Shiite Hezbollah militia and Putin said Israel's response had to be measured, but neither leader resorted to stronger language used by their governments earlier in the week.
"We share the same concerns," Bush told a joint press conference with host Putin.
"We are concerned about violence. We are troubled by the loss of innocent life," he added, demanding that Hezbollah "lay down its arms" and end attacks on Israel and urging Syria to pressure it into doing so.
Putin acknowledged Israel was concerned for its security because of attacks by militant groups, but insisted that "recourse to violence must be balanced and it must be stopped as soon as possible."
"Escalating violence will not bring any positive result," he added, saying G8 leaders would do all they could to secure a halt to military operations.
Israel's Gaza offensive was launched three weeks ago and in Lebanon earlier this week in retaliation for militant groups seizing a total of three soldiers and firing rockets into the Jewish state.
Bush's talks with Putin in St Petersburg, Putin's home city, came ahead of the full G8 summit -- which also includes the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan -- starting with an informal dinner yesterday evening and running to tomorrow.
The US leader, who had vowed to raise concerns over democratic reforms in Russia, clashed with the Putin at the press conference.
Bush said it was wrong to expect Russia to look like the US but pressed Putin on issues such as a free press and freedom of worship and suggested war-torn Iraq might be a model for Moscow.
"I told him that a lot of people in our country would hope Russia would do the same thing," he said.
To which Putin retorted, to laughter: "We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq."
Bush had on Friday met representatives of Russian non-governmental and human rights groups, which often complain about harassment from authorities, on the first stop of his stay.
The two leaders also failed to achieve a breakthrough on trade.
Negotiators from the two sides had been locked in intensive talks in a bid to overcome lingering obstacles to a bilateral deal which would have enabled Russia to join the WTO.
Bush said that Washington supported Moscow's 13-year quest to join the WTO, which sets global trade rules, and that a deal was "almost reached" but "there's more work to be done."
Putin admitted the difficulties, saying national interests were at stake.
"I can't say that we were not expecting such a complication," he said. "We will continue to work, defending our interests and the interests of our growing economy."
Russia is currently the only major power operating outside WTO trade rules, and agreement would have confirmed its rising status as a commercial and economic powerhouse.
Separately, the US and Russia adopted what a US official billed as a "global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism," a control and monitoring mechanism aimed at keeping atomic materials out of the hands of extremists.
The two leaders also discussed North Korea and Iran, with Bush saying they were working together to achieve a consensus.
Iran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment, which the US and Europe fear it could be using to develop nuclear weapons material, while North Korea dramatically spiked regional tensions after test-firing seven missiles.
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