The 18-member alliance including former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is necessary in a world facing conflict because of poverty and Islamic radicalisation, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said during a speech in Palma on the island of Mallorca to launch the alliance's work.

"The alliance of civilisations is an effort to fight against all those who in any part of the world and using all kinds of distorted arguments ... promote hatred and intolerance," he said.

"We have to avoid widening the gap between the Eastern and Western worlds."
 
Peace drive

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan said he believed the alliance would have an impact on the drive towards peace and stability in the world.

Erdogan (L): The lack of under-
standing is a great handicap

"The lack of understanding between civilisations is a great handicap and it turns into extremism, intolerance and terrorism - that's why it is so important to end with it," Erdogan said.

The idea of the alliance was floated by Zapatero before the UN General Assembly in September 2004 as a way to overcome misunderstandings between the West and the Arab and Muslim world and thus combat terrorism.

Turkey later became a co-sponsor of the project, which has been endorsed by the United Nations.

Mutual suspicion

The UN said in September that the alliance seeks to overcome what the world body called mutual suspicion, fear and misunderstanding between Islamic and Western societies that have been exploited by extremists throughout the world.

Zapatero said the group will
evaluate future threats to peace

The first day of the three-day meeting in Palma was attended by Khatami and Tutu, former UNESCO General Director Federico Mayor Zaragoza and Mehmed Aydin of Turkey, a minister of state and professor of theology.

Both Mayor Zaragoza and Aydin are co-chairmen of the UN High-level Group for the Alliance that started its work on Sunday.

Zapatero said the group will evaluate future threats to peace and security, and will focus on ways to correct political, social or religious forces that may lead to dangerous extremism.

The group is expected to report to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the second half of 2006.