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Ahmadinejad brands Israel 'most cruel and racist regime'

IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians at a United Nations conference yesterday, prompting European diplomats to walk out of a speech disrupted by jeering protesters in rainbow wigs tossing red clown noses at the Iranian leader.

Ahmadinejad was the first government official to take the floor at a UN racism conference opening on the eve of Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day. Two protesters in clown costumes tossed soft red objects at Ahmadinejad as he recited a Muslim prayer to begin his speech.

A Jewish student group from France later took credit for causing the disturbance, saying members threw clown noses to "symbolize the mascarade that this conference represents."

Ahmadinejad restarted his talk which ended up lasting more than half an hour, saying the United States and Europe had helped establish Israel after World War II and victimize Palestinians "under the pretext of Jewish suffering."

That prompted a walkout by some 40 diplomats from Britain and France and other European countries that had threatened to leave the conference if it descended into anti-Semitism or other rhetoric harshly critical of Israel, which marred the UN's last racism gathering eight years ago in South Africa.

The US and eight other Western countries were already boycotting the event because of concerns about its fairness.

Ahmadinejad went on to accuse Israel of being the "most cruel and racist regime."

Protesters held placards reading "This is a circus. A racist cannot fight racism," and interrupted the speech with shouts of "Shame! Shame!" and "Racist! Racist!"

Later, about 100 members of mainly pro-Israel and Jewish groups tried to block Ahmadinejad's entrance to a scheduled news conference.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon met with Ahmadinejad before his speech and said he counseled the Iranian leader to avoid dividing the conference. Ban said he was disappointed Ahmadinejad had used his speech "to accuse, divide and even incite," directly opposing the aim of the meeting.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned Ahmadinejad's speech and Ban's meeting with the Iranian leader.

"It is unfortunate that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deemed it appropriate to meet with the greatest Holocaust denier of our time, the head of a UN member state who calls for the destruction of another UN member state. This matter is especially severe as it took place on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day," Israel said.

Ahmadinejad, as a head of state, had the right to speak and did not need a UN invitation to the week-long event aimed at stamping out intolerance worldwide.

Speaking directly after Ahmadinejad's speech, Norway's foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store said the Iranian leader's comments "run counter to the very spirit of dignity of the conference." Ahmadinejad "has made Iran the odd man out," he said.


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