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Battle for racism talks compromise

DURBAN, South Africa -- Delegates to a U.N. conference were continuing to battle to meet a deadline to resolve a row over the Middle East that could trigger an EU walk-out.

Belgium, which has the European Union presidency, denied at the conference that the deadline set by the EU was an ultimatum.

But a French government official warned in Paris on Wednesday that the 15 states could pull out within hours if wording branding Israel as a racist state were not removed from draft documents.

The EU had given hosts South Africa until Wednesday night to broker a deal with Arab states demanding Israel be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories -- the issue that has already prompted a pull-out by the United States and Israel.

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A spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, the top EU official at the conference, said no decision had been taken on what the bloc would do if a deal proved impossible.

"There is no question of pulling out at this stage. No member state has called for it," spokesman Koen Vervaeke told Reuters in response to remarks by a French government spokesman.

French Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jean-Jack Queyranne said Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told a Cabinet meeting in Paris that "if the link between Zionism and racism is maintained, the issue of our departure -- along with the Europeans -- will come up immediately."

Queyranne quoted Jospin as saying a decision could be made within hours. "France and the European Union would seek a departure from this conference, which would mark a failure," Jospin was quoted as telling the Cabinet.

Delegates from the EU, South Africa and Arab states were trying to hammer out new wording on the Israel-Palestinian dispute.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who is chairing the conference, said references to the Mideast conflict had been removed temporarily from the draft document while substitute language was formulated.

Host South Africa presented a compromise draft declaration on the Middle East to try to save the conference from collapse.

Earlier, an EU spokesman said the wording put forward by South Africa "provided an acceptable basis for negotiation" but gave no further details.

A special drafting group, chaired by South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was set up on Tuesday and talks continued overnight into Wednesday.

Robinson has rejected the wording of a declaration adopted by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) forum at the conference.

CNN Johannesburg Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault said it was unprecedented for a conference chair not to endorse an NGO declaration.

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said the United States had "no intention at this point" of rejoining the conference, despite comments from Robinson indicating the U.S. consul general would take the place of the original delegation.

"We are not attending. We pulled out. The U.S. consul general in Durban is accredited but not participating," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told CNN. "He is reporting on the conference."

When asked if there was any possibility the United States would rejoin, Boucher said: "I find it very unlikely, whatever the benefit."

• United Nations
• World Conference Against Racism

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