G8 summit: Syria set to top agenda

IRELAND - World leaders are gathering in Northern Ireland for a G8 summit set to be dominated by the conflict in Syria.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he hoped the G8 nations would focus on "common ground" on the issue of bringing peace to Syria.

But Russia, Syria's key ally, opposes US plans to arm the rebels - something leader Vladimir Putin made clear after talks with Mr Cameron on Sunday.

The two-day summit is also expected to focus on global economic issues.

Mr Cameron, the host, hopes to oversee the launch of talks for an EU-US free trade deal and achieve progress on tax transparency.

Other nations joining the UK, US and Russia for the 39th Summit of the Group of Eight (G8) in Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, are Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The differences between Russia's position on Syria and that of the West was thrown into stark relief by the Downing Street meeting between President Putin and the prime minister.

They are so deep that they look set to overshadow this G8 summit in Northern Ireland unless, as Mr Cameron hopes, the discussion can focus on bolstering chances for some kind of renewed peace talks in Geneva.

But that seems a vain hope. The balance of advantage on the ground in Syria seems to be shifting towards the government side.

Hezbollah's role in joining the fighting threatens a much broader contagion.

The Syria drama risks becoming a regional crisis, with countries such as France now describing this as a struggle between the rebels on one side and the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Iran on the other.

But the event starts amid allegations, made in The Guardian newspaper on Monday, that Britain spied on delegates who attended two G20 meetings in London in 2009.

The newspaper reported that documents, leaked by the ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, showed that British intelligence monitored the computers of foreign politicians and officials.

British spies are accused of setting up internet cafes to read delegates' email traffic and penetrating the security on officials' BlackBerrys to monitor email messages and phone calls. Targets are alleged to have included the Turkish finance minister and possibly 15 others in his party.

Observers say the revelations could cause tensions among delegates attending the G8, but Prime Minister Cameron refused to be drawn, saying he "never comments on security and intelligence issues".
Syria disagreements

The G8 comes days after the US said it was prepared to arm opposition forces in Syria saying it had evidence that President Assad's forces had used chemical weapons on a "small scale".

Mr Cameron, who backed the recent lifting of EU arms sanctions against the rebels, said on Monday that no decision had yet been made on whether the UK would do the same.

But he told reporters ahead of the summit that it was right the West should be "helping, assisting and advising" the opposition.

"We shouldn't accept what President Assad wants us to accept which is the only alternative to him is extremist terrorism. That isn't the case. That is insulting to the millions of Syrians who want a peaceful democratic future for their country and it's their side that we should be on," he told the BBC.

Earlier, he said it was "no secret" that Russian President Putin disagreed with the US and the EU on Syria but said he hoped they would focus on their common aims at the G8 - to deal with the humanitarian crisis and to establish a peace conference.

After meeting Mr Cameron on Sunday, Mr Putin said "blood is on the hands" of both the Syrian government and the rebels in the crisis and that Russia was not breaching any laws by supplying arms to the "legitimate government of Syria".

And in an apparent reference to a video that emerged last month which appeared to show a Syrian rebel eating the heart of a dead soldier, he said the behaviour of some rebels, who "eat the organs" of their enemies, went against the "humanitarian and cultural values" of Europe.

Two years of civil war in Syria has left an estimated 93,000 people dead.
Tax evasion

President Obama, on his first visit to Northern Ireland, delivered a public address at the Waterfront Hall centre in Belfast before travelling on to Lough Erne.

He is due to hold separate talks with Mr Cameron and Mr Putin over the course of the two-day meeting.

Both he and Mr Cameron were also due to meet Italian PM Enrico Letta, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande before the summit opens to signal the start of talks on the EU-US free trade deal.

Mr Cameron has said the deal could be worth £10bn ($15.7bn; 11.8bn euros) to the UK, adding: "That's not some abstract statistic, these trade deals matter, because they mean more jobs, more choice for consumers and lower prices."

The formal talks on Monday are scheduled to cover the global economy.

On Tuesday, Mr Cameron will hope to make progress on tax transparency after agreeing a deal on the issue over the weekend with British overseas territories and Crown dependencies.

He has made no secret of his desire to tackle tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance.

Tuesday will also cover counter-terrorism issues.

Security in Northern Ireland is tight, as ever for the G8, which has been a magnet for protests in the past.

A four-mile (6.5km) long, 3m-high metal fence surrounds the golf resort where the summit takes place.

Some 8,000 police officers are being deployed for the summit.

Police are expecting an anti-G8 march in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh on Monday, with about 2,000 demonstrators.

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