U.S. makes U-turn on U.N. Gaza vote

UNITED NATIONS Fri Jan 9, 2009 12:20am EST

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - In an apparent reversal of earlier promises to Arab states, the United States on Thursday abstained from voting on a Gaza ceasefire resolution at the United Nations Security Council.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the decision to abstain was because the United States first wanted to see the outcome of Egyptian mediation efforts to end the 13-day Israeli offensive which has killed more than 750 Palestinians.

"The United States thought it important to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation efforts in order to see what this resolution might have been supporting. And that is why we chose to abstain tonight," she said.

The U.S. abstention lessens the resolution's clout and could weaken pressure on close U.S. ally Israel to abide by the U.N. decision, which also called for a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Hamas-ruled Gaza. The council's other 14 members voted for the resolution.

Western and Arab diplomats said they had expected Rice to vote for the resolution and cited a phone call she had with U.S. President George W. Bush immediately before the vote.

State Department officials did not immediately respond to e-mails and phone calls about why the United States ultimately decided not to back the resolution.

Before taking her seat in the Security Council chamber, Rice huddled with Arab ministers and told them of the U.S. decision to abstain.

"We sensed her sincerity as the secretary of state personally," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told Reuters.

Asked whether he thought Bush had ordered Rice to change the U.S. vote at the last minute, he said, "I don't know."

Rice had also consulted with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert four or five times throughout the day, a senior U.S. official said earlier.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said he was very disappointed by the U.S. abstention and feared Israel would not abide by the ceasefire resolution but instead continue pounding Gaza the next few days.

"We had expected that all countries would vote in favor and we are not really happy. We expected something more," he told reporters after the vote.

Despite abstaining, Rice expressed strong U.S. support for the text of the resolution and its goals. A U.S. veto of the resolution would have killed it.

"I believe in doing so (adopting the resolution), the council has provided a roadmap for a sustainable, durable peace in Gaza," said Rice.

Britain, which led the drafting of the resolution, declined to publicly criticize the United States.

Asked whether he was disappointed by the U.S. change of heart, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "You can ask me about our vote. We only talk about our vote."

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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