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Bush: Syria should press Hezbollah

Damascus maintains public support of militant group

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (CNN) -- President Bush called on Syria Saturday to exert its influence on Hezbollah militants so they will "lay down their arms."

He put the blame for the spiraling violence between Israel and Hezbollah on Hezbollah and its backers in Damascus.

"The best way to stop violence is to understand why the violence occurred in the first place," Bush said during a news conference ahead of the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"And that is because Hezbollah has been launching rocket attacks out of Lebanon and into Israel because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers."

Northern Israeli towns have been hit by barrages of rockets fired from Lebanon since Wednesday, while Israeli forces have launched widespread attacks on targets inside Lebanon, including the capital, Beirut.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett, also in St. Petersburg, reiterated the administration view that although Israelis have "the right to defend themselves," they also must "exercise some restraint to make sure that we do not jeopardize or collapse the Lebanese government there in Beirut."

"It's something that we had been very clear about both privately and publicly, and we'll continue to express those concerns," he told CNN in an interview.

Officials fear the instability could be exploited to radicalize the Lebanese government. Bartlett said that the administration doesn't want "this young democracy that is trying to get a foothold there" to be in peril.

Syrian, Iranian leaders talk

While Syrian officials outside the country, including its ambassadors, maintain that Damascus is trying to rein in Hezbollah and doesn't want to get involved in the conflict, Syria still publicly supports the group.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his country is not intimidated by Israel and if attacked would respond with swift force, Iranian media reported.

Al-Assad spoke by phone with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who expressed support for Syria and said if Syria was attacked by Israel, it would be an attack on the Islamic world.

Members of Syria's Arab Baath Socialist Party met late Friday and reaffirmed their "strong determination of the Syrian position in support of [Hezbollah]" and congratulated al-Assad for his "wisdom and courage in expressing the Syrian people's absolute support of [Hezbollah]," Syria's state-run news agency reported

G8 leaders are expected to discuss an international response to the crisis during their summit on Saturday. The G8 consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo are also expected to discuss the escalating violence on Saturday.

CNN's Aneesh Raman contributed to this report.

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