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Bush: Impact of Lebanon attacks a concern

But president reiterates Israel's right to defend itself


George W. Bush
Angela Merkel

STRALSUND, Germany (CNN) -- Addressing the escalation of hostilities in the Mideast, President Bush on Thursday warned that Israel should take care not to "weaken" Lebanon's government and also stressed that Syria "needs to be held to account."

"The democracy of Lebanon is an important part of laying a foundation of peace in that region," Bush said. "We've worked very hard to get Syria out of Lebanon" through various U.N. resolutions.

"Israel has a right to defend herself," Bush said.

"The concern is that any activities by Israel to protect herself will weaken that government," he said, referring to Lebanon.

After the militant group Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers this week, Israel stepped up its military campaign in Lebanon on Thursday, with warplanes bombing Beirut's international airport and its navy blockading ports.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah guerrillas fired scores of rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel in the most intense bombardment in years.

In addition, Bush said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "needs to show some leadership toward peace."

Hezbollah enjoys substantial backing from Syria and Iran and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

The American president made the remarks at a news conference following a one-on-one meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after arriving in her electoral district, once part of communist East Germany.

The two met ahead of this weekend's Group of Eight summit in Russia, where the looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program will be a top issue addressed by the industrial democracies.

Merkel said the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers -- which sparked the recent hostilities in Lebanon and also in Gaza -- "is not acceptable." But she added that "parties have to use proportionate means" in their response.

Germany has taken a leading role in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, one of a host of foreign policy flash points following Bush on his five-day journey. Others include the standoff with North Korea, the Iraq war, concerns about the course of democracy in Russia as well as renewed violence in the Middle East.

Herring, wild boar on the menu

Upon his arrival in Stralsund, Bush received a gift from the people of the Baltic Sea town -- a barrel of herring. Later, he planned to have dinner with local residents that will feature barbecued wild boar.

Speaking in an old market square, Bush thanked the people of Stralsund for "giving Germany a fine chancellor" and praised the country's progress under democracy.

"For decades the German people were separated by an ugly wall," Bush said. "Today your nation is whole again, the German people are at the center of Europe that is united and free and peaceful."

Merkel -- the first person from the east to become chancellor since German reunification in 1990 -- invited the president to visit her parliamentary constituency during a trip to Washington in May. Among the two's stops Thursday will be Trinwillershagen, a town that was an agricultural cooperative during communist rule.

The trip is Bush's first visit to Germany since fellow conservative Merkel became chancellor in November. But she already has visited Washington twice, saying she has "a very, very good rapport" with the U.S. leader.

German-American relations had been strained by the decision of Merkel's center-left predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But the two countries have been expressing unity when it comes to Iran, agreeing that the Tehran regime cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

In addition to his meeting with Merkel, Bush and first lady Laura Bush joined the chancellor for a visit to historic St. Nikolai Church in Stralsund.

On Friday, Bush leaves for Russia, where he will have a bilateral meeting Saturday with President Vladimir Putin before the G-8 summit begins the following day.

CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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