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EU ministers tone down rhetoric

Street protest
A protester hands a policeman a flower  

GHENT, Belgium -- EU leaders reaffirmed their pledge to work with the U.N. to forge a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but fell short of calling it a "legitimate objective" of the campaign.

The 15 members confirmed in a draft statement on Friday their backing for the war on terrorism and a new stable government in Afghanistan.

But at the end of their one-day meeting in Ghent on Friday, they toned down the tough earlier language which had called the overthrow of the ruling Taliban a "legitimate objective" of the anti-terror campaign drawn up after the September 11 attacks.

The Taliban is blamed for harbouring Osama bin Laden, the key suspect in the September 11 attacks.

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The latest draft said: "Starting now, under the auspices of the United Nations, we must work toward the emergence of a stable government, representative of all the Afghan people and respectful of human rights and the development of good relations with all neighbouring countries."

French President Jacques Chirac said: "The Afghans must create a stable, representative government that prevents the resurgence of terrorism on their territory."

The leaders also emphasised their support for rapid, large-scale humanitarian aid to the country.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said after the meeting: "We also laid great stress on the humanitarian crisis and the need to do everything we could, both individually and as the EU, to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people."

The points had reiterated earlier comments made by European foreign and home affairs ministers.

The EU meeting on Friday had kicked off amid controversy over the decision by leaders of Britain, France and Germany to hold private talks about Afghanistan ahead of the main discussions.

The "big three" faced accusations of undermining EU solidarity by staging their own "mini-summit."

Most of the other members have offered their support to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, though Britain is the only country to be actively involved with the U.S..

Blair, Chirac
Blair's pre-summit meeting with Chirac and Schroeder has ruffled feathers  

Eleven of the 15 belong to NATO, and through the 19-nation alliance they have opened their ports and airspace to American military forces.

Many are providing logistical support.

Outside the main summit meeting thousands of anti-airstrike and globalisation protesters marched peacefully.

About 7,200 people gathered outside the building in two separate demonstrations, Reuters news agency said -- one against action being taken in Afghanistan, the other a union rally calling for more jobs and social rights.

A further march was planned for later on Friday.

The numbers were far short of the 40,000 predicted by police, who only made five arrests -- in stark contrast to previous anti-global demonstrations where violence has flared between riot-gear clad police and militants.


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• European Union

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