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Obama 'softens' Guantanamo pledge


Barack Obama, the US president-elect, has appeared to soften his election campaign promise to shut the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay as one of his first acts as US president, saying its closure would be "a challenge".

"It is more difficult than a lot of people realise ..." Obama said during an interview aired on Sunday with US broadcaster ABC.

"I think it's going to take some time ... but I don't want to be ambiguous about this - we are going to close Guantanamo," he told the This Week programme.

Sunday also marked the seventh anniversary of the first prisoners arriving at Guantanamo.

The Cuba-based camp, which has been widely criticised amid reports of inmates being tortured and abused, was opened in 2002 to hold prisoners captured during the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Among problems to be dealt with are how the US legally resolves ongoing military tribunals and the fate of about 60 detainees that US officials have approved for transfer to their home countries, Obama said.

'Heartbreaking' war on Gaza

During discussion in Sunday's interview, he was asked for his response to criticisms of his silence on on Israel's war on Gaza, which many in the Arab world have interpreted as callousness.

He said he stood by comments he made in July supporting Israel's "right to defend itself," adding: "When you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it's heartbreaking.

"[But] we cannot have two administrations at the same time simultaneously sending signals in a volatile situation."

He said he was creating a team to handle the Middle East conflict "as a whole" once he takes office on January 20, that would "be engaging with all of the actors there ... [and] work to create a strategic approach that ensures that both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations".

'New approach'

His comments came shortly before Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, said for the first time on Sunday that Israel was "nearing the goals that it set for itself" in its war on Gaza, amid some of the heaviest clashes of an offensive that has killed nearly 900 people in the territory, nearly half of them believed to be women and children.

Obama said he would seek much broader engagement with Iran, in a shift from the administration of George Bush, the US president.

The new approach would include "sending a signal that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how an international actor behaves," he said.

Obama has said he was prepared to offer Iran economic incentives to stop its nuclear work but warned tougher sanctions could be imposed if it refused.