Putin: Israel After More Than Just Return of Captured Soldiers

President Vladimir Putin said Sunday he believed Israel was pursuing wider goals in its military campaign than the return of abducted soldiers.

"However complicated the questions are, maximum efforts must be applied to resolve the situation in a peaceful way and I think all efforts have not been exhausted," Putin said.

"However, it is our impression that aside from seeking to return the abducted soldiers, Israel is pursuing wider goals," Putin said at a midnight news conference after a dinner opening the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. He did not elaborate.

Israel began military strikes against Lebanon on Wednesday, when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. As civilian deaths mount, diplomatic efforts to end the crisis have yet to get off the ground.

The violence in the Middle East is certain to dominate the G-8 summit, and differences between the leaders began to appear even before the summit began.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who met on Saturday with Putin ahead of the summit, has been outspoken in defending Israel and accusing Hezbollah — backed by Syria and Iran — of igniting the crisis with its cross-border raid.

Putin agreed it was unacceptable to pursue goals using force, but said that "at the same time, we work under the assumption that the use of force should be balanced."

The G8 countries — the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada — were expected to issue a declaration on the Lebanon crisis.

"We, the Russian side, regret ... that on the eve of the G8 ... we see an escalation of the situation in the Middle East," Putin said.

Turning to the issue of Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, Putin praised the six-nation format of talks on the issue, saying it should help in finding common ground.

"The question is not about toughening our stance, but about finding common approaches — this is actually the most difficult, but can prove to be the most effective in solving the Iranian nuclear problem," he said.

Putin defended the right of Iran and of other countries to nuclear technologies, saying Moscow's proposal to create international centers for uranium enrichment could serve that goal, at the same time guaranteeing nonproliferation.

"We believe that all countries in the world have the right to access high technologies, including nuclear," he said.

Putin said that while the G8 was "an important forum" for the world's leading countries to coordinate their positions on key global problems, he stressed that only the U.N. Security Council could actually solve such issues.

"There are institutions that are the foundation of today's international relations — first and foremost it is the United Nations and its Security Council," the president said. "It is there that the most acute problems are solved and the most serious decisions are made."

Nevertheless, Putin said the G8 summit would also address conflicts in former Soviet states, and said he had discussed the issue with Bush during their meeting earlier in the day.

He said he and Bush had focused mostly on Georgia, where tensions are rising over the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and most recently South Ossetia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who visited Bush at the White House last week, has made it a priority to bring the two rebel regions back into the government fold. Russia, which has peacekeepers in the region, has provided support to the separatists — in part by issuing passports to their citizens.