Blair touches down in Cairo

The prime minister, Tony Blair, arrived in Cairo today on the latest leg of his Middle East diplomatic mission after the heaviest wave of air strikes so far against Afghanistan.

The prime minister, Tony Blair, arrived in Cairo today on the latest leg of his Middle East diplomatic mission after the heaviest wave of air strikes so far against Afghanistan.

Mr Blair will discuss with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, the international fight against terrorism and the need to put the Middle East peace process back on track.

The British government believes that the latest bombing raids mean the Taliban regime no longer has control of its air space and that the majority of Osama bin Laden's terrorist camps have been destroyed, but that considerable numbers of tanks, planes and radar systems remain in place.

Mr Blair told reporters travelling with him: "I cannot say how long it [the bombing campaign] will go on for. The precise nature of the next stage of action is something that's not sensible to discuss at the moment, but we have always been aware that you have to back up air strikes with other forms of targeted action."

Mr Blair, who spoke to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, by telephone last night, believes restarting the Middle East peace process could play a crucial role in defusing hostility in parts of the Arab world towards the coalition's action.

He told reporters: "There's a genuine, deep feeling about the Middle East peace process and it's important people understand that.

"We need to show people in the region that we are absolutely sincere in our desire to push it forward and get it back on track.

"President Mubarak is a key figure in the Arab world. He has been courageous in support of us in this situation."

Mr Blair also believes the international coalition needs to step up its propaganda effort to counter any perception in the Arab world that the strikes against Afghanistan could be viewed as a clash between the west and Islam.

Mr Blair said: "One thing that's increasingly clear is that we need to upgrade considerably our media and public opinion campaign in the Arab world."

An article by the prime minister has been sent to all British embassies in Muslim countries which will be offered to local media.

The article has also been offered to London-based Arab newspapers.

Mr Blair added: "Bin Laden's mission is actually about power, and the power he wants is to put a Taliban-type regime in each of the many Arab countries.

"When people in those countries think about that, it fills them with horror.

"His biggest weakness is with all the various fundamentalist groups - their views on human rights, the role of women, religious freedom, business and enterprise, are all views which are abhorrent to the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims."

After talks and lunch with the Egyptian president, Mr Blair will head back to London after his whirlwind three-day mission in the Middle East.

Staff and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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