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UNITED Nations officials sought today to salvage a UN racism summit that Washington and its major allies are boycotting, effectively ceding the spotlight to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Australia, Canada, Germany, Poland, Italy and the Netherlands are among countries cold-shouldering the summit because of fears it will be a platform for what US President Barack Obama called "hypocritical and counterproductive" antagonism towards Israel.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon defended a disputed conference text as "carefully balanced" and said the conference was necessary to confront simmering racial tensions that could otherwise trigger social unrest and violence.

"I deeply regret that some have chosen to stand aside. I hope they will not do so for long," he told the Geneva meeting.

Washington announced on Saturday that it would boycott the summit because of concerns about a declaration prepared for the meeting that reaffirmed the language adopted at the last major UN race conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Canada and Israel said months ago they would stay away to avoid a repeat of the Durban summit, which the United States and Israel walked out of when the Jewish state was singled out for criticism.

Israel said on Monday it was recalling its ambassador to Switzerland in protest at the conference and Ahmadinejad's attandance.


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that states participating in the summit should adopt the declaration negotiated for the meeting in order to confront dangerous racial and ethnic tensions.

"We all should be mindful that a failure to agree on the way forward would negatively reverberate on the human rights agenda for years to come," Pillay said in her remarks to the plenum.

Ahmadinejad is the only major head of state to accept an invitation to take part.

Human rights campaigners fear his speech, coinciding with Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, could sour the meeting if he repeats previous statements saying Israel should be "wiped off the map" and questioning whether the Nazi Holocaust occurred.

France, which like Britain and the Czech Republic is sending its Geneva ambassador instead of a high-level official, is ready to walk out if he expresses open antagonism towards Israel.

"We will not tolerate any excesses, any provocation," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on France Info radio.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, said the absence of the United States and other Western powers in Geneva "strikes a blow at UN efforts to fight racism".

"Instead of isolating radical voices, governments have capitulated to them," advocacy director Juliette de Rivero said.

Obama, the first African-American US president, said his government wanted a "clean start" with the United Nations on issues on the Geneva agenda, which include ways to prevent xenophobic attacks.

Speaking on Sunday in Trinidad, he said he "would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism".

"Hopefully some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on, to act to reduce discrimination around the globe," he said.


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