Syria’s raging civil war was set to top the agenda at the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland starting on Monday, with President Barack Obama trying to get Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s most powerful ally, to help bring Bashar Assad to the negotiating table.
The leaders’ first private face-to-face meeting in about a year comes after Obama angered Moscow by authorizing American military support for the Syrian rebels.
Putin criticized the West’s position during talks with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron on the eve of the summit, saying the rebels were cannibals.
“I think you will not deny that one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines, in front of the public and cameras,” Putin said at a tense joint news conference with Cameron on Sunday.
Russia, Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States are members of the G-8.
Obama delivered a speech on sustaining Catholic-Protestant reconciliation 15 years on from the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord on Monday morning in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, a glass-fronted building that would never have been built during the city’s long era of car bombs that ended with a 1997 Irish Republican Army cease-fire.
In his speech, Obama said that the peace achieved in Northern Ireland – part of the United Kingdom, unlike the Republic of Ireland just south of the border — after decades of violence known as the Troubles was an example for those struggling to end violence around the world.
“Beyond these shores right now in scattered corners of the world there are people living in the grip of conflict, ethnic conflict, religious conflict, tribal conflicts,” he said. “And they are groping for a way to find a way to discover how to move beyond the heavy hand of history — to put aside the violence…. And they’re wondering perhaps if Northern Ireland can achieve peace we can too. So you’re their blueprint to follow.”
The G-8 summit was being held just minutes from the town of Enniskillen, a small town with a painful past. In 1987, militants belonging to the Irish Republican Army bombed the town’s annual memorial ceremony for British war veterans. The attack killed 11 people and injured 63.
In a sign of how much has changed, last year Queen Elizabeth made history by walking across the town’s narrow high street between the Protestant and Catholic churches which face one another, 25th anniversary of the bombing. It was the first time the queen had ever set foot in a Catholic church on the island of Ireland.
Obama stressed that maintaining the peace was a constant struggle:
“Whether you are a good neighbor to someone from the other side of past battles — that’s up to you. Whether you treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve — that’s up to you. Whether you let your kids play with kids who attend a different church — that’s your decision. Whether you take a stand against violence and hatred, and tell extremists on both sides that no matter how many times they attack the peace, they will not succeed — that is in your hands. And whether you reach your own outstretched hand across dividing lines, across peace walls, to build trust in a spirit of respect — that’s up to you.”
Obama was traveling with his wife Michelle, who spoke before him in Belfast, and their two daughters. In the afternoon, he was set to meet with Cameron ahead of the summit itself. Later, the President was to meet with European Union leaders to discuss trade issues.
Meanwhile, a British newspaper reported Britain intercepted telephone calls and monitored computers used by foreign ministers taking part in two high-level international meetings.
The Guardian said some delegates from countries in the Group of 20 — which comprises top economies around the world — used Internet cafes that had been set up by British intelligence agencies to read their emails in London in 2009. The report was published hours before leaders of the G-8 countries — all of which are in the G-20 — started the Northern Ireland summit.
Earlier this month, the newspaper reported details of surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) of phone records and Internet data in the U.S. The newspaper said the evidence was contained in documents that were leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Northern Ireland’s police appear to be leaving little to chance in ensuring security around the Lough Erne resortjust outside Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. More than 3,500 officers were drafted in from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of officers on duty each day of the summit to 8,000.
Army engineers helped set up steel fences and coiled razor wire for miles around the resort’s lone road entrance.
Only 2,000 protesters were expected to travel to the remote resort for Monday night’s main planned demonstration.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.