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Nobel Peace winner urges Obama to focus on Mideast

OSLO, Norway -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday to start his term by giving “high priority” to the Mideast conflict, calling it the world’s most challenging peace-building project.

The Finnish diplomat and mediator also warned that the global financial crisis would strike hard at the developing world, and he called on governments to not cut back on foreign aid.

Ahtisaari received this year’s coveted Nobel Prize for his three decades of peace work around the globe including in Namibia, Kosovo and Indonesia. He served as Finland’s president from 1994 until declining re-election in 2000, when he left politics and founded his Crisis Management Initiative, a peace mediation institute.

In a speech after accepting the award Wednesday at Oslo’s City Hall, Ahtisaari insisted that “all conflicts can be settled” and that the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not need to rage indefinitely. “We simply cannot go on, year after year, simply pretending to do something to help the situation in the Middle East. We must also get results,” Ahtisaari said.

“I do hope that the new president of the United States, who will be sworn in next month, will give high priority to the Middle East conflict during his first year in the office,” he said.

Ahtisaari has not sought a role to mediate in the Middle East, and said Tuesday the process was already in good hands with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair mediating.

On Wednesday, in an interview with The Associated Press before the award ceremony, he criticized world leaders for not doing enough to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The international community and those in power are sitting there letting them destroy each other, and they are allowing both parties to make their lives in the future even more complicated and difficult than it is today,” Ahtisaari said.

In his acceptance speech, the skilled and dogged negotiator said religions are peace-loving and can be a constructive force in solving conflicts. He said that also applies to Mideast peace efforts, which he called “the most challenging peace building project ahead of us.”

By selecting Ahtisaari for the prize, the Nobel committee returned its focus to traditional peace work after tapping climate campaigner Al Gore and the U.N. panel on climate change last year.

“His efforts have been untiring, and he has achieved good results,” committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes said of Ahtisaari.

Ahtisaari was a senior Finnish diplomat when in 1977 he was named the U.N. envoy for Namibia, where guerrillas were battling South African apartheid rule. He later became undersecretary-general, and in 1988 was dispatched to Namibia to lead 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers during its transition to independence.

After serving as Finnish president in 1994-2000, he returned to peace efforts in Kosovo and in Indonesia, where he negotiated a 2005 peace deal between the government and Aceh rebels.

Ahtisaari warned that the financial crisis could prove “another major setback” for poor countries already hit hard by climate change, rising food prices and declining levels of foreign trade.

“A reduction in foreign assistance and investment would be disastrous for badly needed economic growth,” he said. “I call on all governments to remain committed to their stated goals of eradicating poverty.”

The Nobel prizes are always presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of their founder, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. The peace prize is presented in Oslo, and the prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and literature in Stockholm, Sweden.

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 Nobel Peace winner urges Obama to focus on Mideast 
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, right, receives the diploma and medal from Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Ole Danbolt Mjoes during the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in the Oslo City Hall Wednesday, Dec.10. (AP)

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