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World leaders in Rome as Mideast diplomacy heats up

03 june 2011, 12:37
Security forces locked down central Rome on Thursday as world leaders including the Israeli and Palestinian presidents attended a celebration to mark the founding of the Italian republic in 1946, AFP reports.

The Afghan, Argentinian and Russian presidents were also among the more than 80 international delegations taking part, along with US Vice President Joseph Biden, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, on the defensive after his party's shock defeat in local elections, will be hosting talks with Biden and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev following a military parade on Thursday.

Israeli military radio also reported the possibility of an impromptu "summit" in the Italian capital between Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Biden.

Peres said he was prepared to meet Abbas but acknowledged his visit came as part of Israeli efforts to convince European nations to oppose Palestinian plans to seek UN membership as a state in September.

"There are differences of opinion between European countries. Europe is not united on this issue. That's why the moment has come to try to wield influence," Peres told Israeli radio.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who met Abbas in Rome on Wednesday ahead of a two-day visit to Israel, meanwhile said France was ready to host a peace conference before the end of July to kickstart stalled negotiations.

Air space over Rome was closed off for the parade, which featured a fly-past by the Frecce Tricolori air force aerobatic team as well as an array of military hardware from the early 20th century to the present day.

The event took place along Via dei Fori Imperiali -- a spectacular avenue through the ancient Roman Forum leading to the Colosseum that was built by Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.

After the end of World War II and the killing of Mussolini, Italians voted in a popular referendum on June 2, 1946 to abolish the monarchy. The yearly Feast of the Republic celebration is a public holiday in Italy.

This year the celebration is particularly significant and is the first time that so many foreign officials have been invited because 2011 is also the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.

Many foreign dignitaries are housed in luxurious hotels along the Via Veneto -- a famous street seen as the epitome for Rome chic as captured by Federico Fellini's cult 1960s film "La Dolce Vita".

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