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ASEAN concerned by S.Korea ship sinking, Gaza

world Updated: Jul 18, 2010 11:24 IST

AFP
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Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations shared "deep concern" at the sinking of a South Korean warship, says a draft document which also calls for unimpeded aid access to Gaza.

"We expressed deep concern over the sinking of (the) ship Cheonan and the rising tension on the Korean peninsula," says the draft, which fails to apportion blame.

AFP obtained the document ahead of the 10 foreign ministers' annual talks, which begin in Vietnam on Monday.

The discussions culminate on Friday in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific's largest security dialogue, which will be attended by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Tensions over the sinking are expected to overshadow the ARF talks, diplomats and observers said.

South Korea has said it wants ARF to condemn North Korea for the torpedo attack which broke the corvette in two in March with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang vehemently denies involvement despite the findings of a multinational investigation, and says it is ready to retaliate if it is punished.

Foreign ministers of North and South Korea as well as from Japan, Russia, China and Europe are among those expected at the meeting of the 27-member ARF.

"We urged all parties concerned to exercise utmost restraint, enhance confidence and trust, settle disputes by peaceful means through dialogue and promote long-lasting peace and security in the region," the ministers' draft says.

It reaffirms support for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and encourages a return to six-party talks as soon as possible, "bearing in mind that peace and security on the Korean peninsula would greatly impact the region".

After a United Nations statement on the ship sinking, nuclear-armed North Korea said it was willing in principle to return to the multilateral disarmament talks which it abandoned last year.

The talks involved China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the US.

Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, said this week that Pyongyang would have to demonstrate a commitment to change its "provocative ways" before US and South Korean negotiators would start dialogue.

On July 9 the UN Security Council condemned the Cheonan attack but did not apportion blame, a result hailed by the North as a "great diplomatic victory".

One diplomat said the ARF would be under "very strong pressure" to address the issue after the UN statement.

But analysts and diplomats said the ARF is unlikely to blame Pyongyang.

Communist Vietnam, which will chair the meeting, has major business links with South Korea but sees the North as an ideological ally.

In their draft document, the ASEAN foreign ministers also call for unimpeded aid access to Gaza and a resumption of Middle East peace talks.

ASEAN includes the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, as well as Muslim-majority Malaysia and Brunei.

The ministers "strongly condemned" a deadly May 31 Israeli military raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip.

"In this regard, we reiterated the call for the unimpeded access of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people in Gaza in order to help alleviate their plight," says the draft.

It calls for a resumption of negotiations for "a final, just and comprehensive settlement with the realisation of two states, Israel and Palestine".