As the leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan gathered in Saint Petersburg on Saturday before the G8 summit talks, they all stressed the gravity of the situation.

  

But while George Bush, the US president, put the blame on Lebanon's Hezbollah for rocket attacks on Israel and the capture of Israeli soldiers, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, called on Israel to show restraint.

 

Hezbollah should "lay down its arms" and end the attacks, Bush said, urging Syria to put pressure on it do to so.

 

Referring to Israel, Putin said that "recourse to violence must be balanced and it must be stopped as soon as possible".

 

Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, spoke of the dangers of the conflict spreading.

 

Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defence minister, went further and said there was a "real threat" that other countries could be dragged in.

 

"Disproportionate" force

 

Hadley warned of the risks of
wider escalation of the conflict

The European Union, like Russia, described Israel's use of military force as "disproportionate".

 

A spokesman for Jacques Chirac, the French president, said G8 leaders should not allow themselves to be wedged apart but should put on a united front, "a mobilisation of all of us around this objective of de-escalation".

 

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, agreed. His spokesman said the summit "shouldn't be a talking shop, it should be setting an agenda" to resolve the crisis.

 

Hadley said Washington hoped to persuade its G8 partners to agree on a statement blaming Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria for the violence.

 

The draft US officials are pushing should recognise Hezbollah as being "at the root of this problem", Hadley said, and also name the Palestinian group Hamas as well as Iran and Syria for supporting them.

 

"I think it is coming together," he told reporters, referring to work on the statement.

 

Peace process "dead"

 

Amr Mussa: The Middle East
peace process is dead

In Cairo, meanwhile, Amr Mussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, said that "the Middle East [peace] process is dead" as foreign ministers met in an emergency session and unanimously condemned the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

 

As they struggled to maintain a unified front, the foreign ministers who met at the Arab League headquarters, said they would ask the United Nations Security Council to handle the Middle East peace process.

 

The Arab League "condemns the Israeli aggression in Lebanon which contradicts all international law and regulations", the final statement said.

 

But the meeting comes at a time of profound differences among Arabs on how to confront the situation in the region.

 

On Friday, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, condemned the Israeli military aggression in Lebanon but also indirectly criticised Hezbollah for harming Arab interests.

 

Similar language was used earlier by Saudi Arabia, which indirectly accused Hezbollah of "adventurism" in provoking the Israeli onslaught and putting all Arab nations at risk.

 

Lebanon's plea

 

"Bombs are exploding, innocent people are being killed,  infrastructures are being destroyed ... The powerful continue to crush the weak, but unfortunately those who hold the power in the world are keeping mum"

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister

Back in Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, the prime minister, called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the "collective punishment" of his country.

He also declared Lebanon "a disaster zone in need of a comprehensive and speedy Arab plan".

 

Saad Hariri, Lebanon's parliamentary majority leader, urged world powers to stop Israel's "aggression" on his country and called for fellow Arab states to take a strong stand.

  

Lebanon failed to secure a ceasefire at an emergency UN Security Council debate on Friday, with the United States standing firmly behind its ally Israel.

 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, a key US ally and Israel's main Muslim ally, criticised the Israeli offensive and the reaction of other countries.

 

"Bombs are exploding, innocent people are being killed,  infrastructures are being destroyed ... The powerful continue to crush the weak, but unfortunately those who hold the power in the world are keeping mum," he said.

 

Syria not a target

 

Four days of raids have killed nearly 100 civilians, mostly Lebanese, destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure and crippled its economy.

 

In an unprecedented action on Saturday afternoon, an Israeli fighter bomber fired four missiles about 200 metres beyond Masnaa, the main crossing point between Lebanon and Syria, Lebanese police said.

 

However, Damascus denied that its territory had been hit and General Gadi Azincot, Israel's head of military operations, said later that Syria was "not an objective of our operation".

 

Lebanon has been mired in its own political crisis since the murder of ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri last year and is still rebuilding after the devastating 1975-1990 civil war.