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Ashton: Toulouse remarks distorted

Europe's foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton has tried to defuse a growing row with Israel over remarks interpreted as linking the killings of school children in France with deaths in Gaza.

Baroness Ashton highlighted various tragedies taking the lives of children when she addressed a Palestinian refugee youth conference in Brussels.

After being urged to resign as EU High Representative by Israel's defence minister, she told MEPs her words had been distorted.

She prefaced a scheduled address on foreign policy to a European Parliament committee by declaring: "I want to begin by saying something that is very, very important to me because I am really saddened by the distortion of my remarks yesterday at the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) event."

She went on: "I condemn unreservedly the terrible murders at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse yesterday and extend my sympathy to the families and friends of the victims, to the people of France and to the Jewish community.

"At yesterday's event I drew no parallel whatsoever between this tragedy and events elsewhere in the Middle East."

Earlier Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak insisted: "The comparison made by Ashton between what is happening in Gaza to what happened in Toulouse, and what is going on in Syria every day, is outrageous and has absolutely no grounding in reality."

In her remarks on Monday Baroness Ashton mentioned a range of tragic events involving children, from last week's Swiss coach crash in which 22 Belgian schoolchildren died, to the Norwegian massacre by a lone gunmen last year.

She said: "We remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances - the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and in different parts of the world, we remember young people and children who lose their lives."

The issue raised immediate Israeli sensitivities because of the recent death of at least one Palestinian child in renewed conflict between Israeli forces and Gaza Strip militant groups, bringing to 13 the estimated tally of under-18s in Gaza said to have been killed by Israel forces.

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