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Racism conference in jeopardy?

Officials work to salvage meet after U.S., Israel walk out

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DURBAN, South Africa — South African and European officials worked to salvage the world racism conference Tuesday after the United States and Israel walked out over Arab efforts to condemn Israel.

Both countries had warned that they would leave if language in a proposed final declaration and program of action singled Israel out for criticism. When a Norwegian compromise was rejected by Arab delegations Monday, they decided to go home, accusing Arab nations of using the conference as a platform to criticize the Jewish state.

Seeking to save the conference meant to develop an international plan to combat discrimination, the European Union, the Arab League and South Africa met into early Tuesday to seek a compromise on the dispute, said Olivier Alsteens, spokesman for Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who represented the EU at the meeting.

"We want a short, well-balanced text," Alsteens said. "Europe could not agree that the conference support only one part of the (Middle East) conflict."

South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was working to come up with compromise wording, Alsteens said. The three groups met Tuesday morning and planned to continue meeting, he said.

In a statement released in Durban Monday evening, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had remained in Washington, denounced the draft declaration's "hateful language" and said he had told the U.S. delegation to return home from the World Conference Against Racism.

"I have taken this decision with regret because of the importance of the international fight against racism and the contribution that this conference could have made to it," the statement said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said Tuesday that the conference appeared to be getting back on track, with all references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict temporarily removed from the document while substitute language was being sought.

She also told a news briefing that the departing U.S. delegation had called her from the airport to clarify that it had not completely pulled out of the conference and that Craig Kuehl, the U.S. consul-general in Durban, would remain as a delegate.

However, U.S. delegation spokeswoman Judy Moon said the United States had completely ceased its participation in the conference. She said Kuehl would be observing it not as a delegate but in his role as the U.S. official responsible for reporting on events in Durban.

The United States and Israel boycotted the two previous U.N. racism conferences — in 1978 and 1983 — in part because of similar language.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the U.S. withdrawal "unfortunate," and human rights organizations at the conference condemned the U.S. move.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, attending as a member of the Black Leadership Forum, said he was disappointed President Bush allowed the debate over Israel to determine whether the United States would participate.

"The fact of the matter is there is no resolution yet," Jackson said on CBS' "The Early Show" on Tuesday. "We have worked diligently to raise the human rights agenda, to fight the racism and the intolerance, and the U.S. should be engaged in that process and it chose to disengage."

Jackson called the language of the draft document "inflammatory" but said the United States "as a tough democracy, can't react to words — we fight and we change words."

"We of all countries, who have known the impact of resolution by law, should negotiate a change, not withdraw and run," he said.

Jewish delegations at the conference were pulling out as well, said Shimon Samuels, an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and chair of the Jewish caucus.

The 15-nation European Union said it had no current plans to leave, but that if it did it would do so as a bloc along with its 13 candidate states, Alsteens said.

Canada said it would stay for the time being but would not accept the wording of the draft document that prompted the U.S. withdrawal. Australia was "considering all options," said delegation spokesman Bala Chettur.

The document recognized with "deep concern the increase of racist practices of Zionism" and said Zionism "is based on racial superiority." Zionism is the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state.

Israel was the only country mentioned specifically in the document, which accused it of "practices of racial discrimination."

Participants at the conference have complained that the Middle East dispute has overshadowed other important issues.

Outside the conference center Tuesday, about 200 demonstrators from a wide range of groups tried to make their voices heard.

Activists for indigenous groups in the Americas protested a paragraph in the declaration they say would deny them special rights in their home countries. African-American groups demanded the declaration call for reparations for slavery — also opposed by the U.S. government.