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ANKARA - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Group of Eight leaders Saturday to push for a ceasefire in the escalating crisis in the Middle East as he harshly criticized Israeli military offensives, Anatolia news agency reported.

"I appeal to the G8 countries to take a joint decision... (for) the UN Security Council to ask for a ceasefire... They have to work this out," Erdogan said in the northeastern city of Artvin.

The leaders of the world's most powerful eight nations -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States -- gathered in Saint Petersburg Saturday for a summit expected to tackle the raging turmoil in the Middle East.

On Friday, a UN Security Council debate ended with no action on Lebanon's demand for an end to Israeli air strikes, as the United States blamed the crisis squarely on Iran and Syria.

Israel has been bombing Lebanon in retaliation to the capture of two of its soldiers by the Shiite group Hezbollah Wednesday, while also pounding the Gaza Strip since an Israeli soldier was snatched there by Palestinian militants on June 25.

"If the abduction incident in Palestine is negative, responding to it with disproportionate force is worse," Erdogan said. "Nothing can justify the showering of bombs on innocent civilians and the merciless destruction of cities."

"The children of Palestine are as precious as those of Israel," he said, according to Anatolia.

Turkey, one of Israel's few Muslim allies in the region, sought to mediate in the early stages of the crisis when it sent a special envoy to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in a bid to convince Damascus to use its influence over Hamas to secure the release of the Israeli soldier.

07/15/2006 13:57 GMT

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