France wades into Qatar row, urges end to punitive measuresJuly 15, 2017 9:22pm

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — France's foreign minister on Saturday called on Qatar's neighbors to immediately lift measures impacting thousands of people in the Gulf, becoming the latest foreign diplomat to visit the region and attempt to help find a resolution to a crisis that has dragged on for more than a month.

In early June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and moved to isolate the small, but wealthy Gulf nation, canceling air routes between their capitals and Qatar's and closing their airspace to Qatari flights. Saudi Arabia also sealed Qatar's only land border, impacting a key source of food imports in the mostly desert nation.

The four countries also expelled all Qatari nationals, impacting mixed-nationality families in the Gulf, students and people seeking medical treatment abroad, among others. Prior to the dispute, Qataris could travel visa-free between the Gulf countries.

France Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said such punitive measures should end.

"France is calling for these measures to be lifted, especially ones that affect the (Qatari) population, specifically measures that impact bi-national families that have been separated," Le Drian said.

He was speaking to reporters in Qatar alongside Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who said he welcomed mediation efforts and possible negotiations so long as they are founded on respect for "sovereignty."

After his visit to Qatar, Le Drian headed to Saudi Arabia where he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In remarks to reporters Saturday evening, Le Drian said France seeks to play a supportive role to Kuwaiti-led mediation efforts to reduce tensions. He is scheduled to visit the UAE and Kuwait next.

The Arab quartet has demanded Qatar end its support of extremist groups, but also its support of Islamist political dissidents they brand as terrorists, but which many Western allies do not. Other demands include shutting down Qatar's flagship Al-Jazeera network, cubring ties with Iran and expelling Turkish troops stationed in Qatar.

Qatar has rejected the demands, saying that the list in its entirety infringes on national sovereignty. Qatar also rejects allegations it has supported terror groups.

Despite the blockade by the four Arab countries, life has not been impacted significantly in Qatar. The government has stepped in to help pay additional costs of shipping and has looked to its allies, like Turkey, for food imports.

With Qatar holding firm to its position, a top Emirati diplomat cautioned that the diplomatic standoff could be prolonged.

"We are heading toward a long estrangement," UAE Minister of State for Foreign Relations Anwar al-Gargash wrote on Twitter.

"The reality is we are far from a political solution that changes Qatar's course. In light of that, nothing will change and we must look to a different mode in relations," he added.

Earlier in the week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in the Gulf. While in Qatar, he secured an agreement to enhance cooperation on combatting terrorism and terror financing.

Saudi commentators criticized the result of Tillerson's visit to Qatar, saying the signed agreement fell far short of the demands made for Qatar to change its policy of supporting Islamists. Tillerson, however, said the discussions had been "helpful" and that the U.S. planned to keep at it.

Qatar's Foreign Minister told reporters in Turkey on Friday that it would be unfair to describe Tillerson's visit to the Gulf as a failure, insisting that the crisis "cannot be solved in a day."

Qatar hosts al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation in the Middle East and hub for U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are among the world's biggest military spenders, purchasing billions of dollars in equipment from the U.S. and Europe to beef up their militaries. All three are considered allies of many Western nations.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Qatar attended an international meeting on countering Islamic State group financing on Friday. After the meeting, Qatar said a united front is required.

"We must not be distracted from our campaign to root out ISIS and cut off their flow of funds," said a statement distributed by Qatar's government communication office, referring to the IS group using a different acronym.

The Arab quartet, however, view Qatar's policies in the region as a bigger and more immediate threat.

___

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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