KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Asia's main security forum attended by 25 top policymakers from around the world homed in on Friday on the Middle East war and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, attending the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) for the first time, will hold talks on the Lebanon crisis and Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, although North Korea itself will not take part in the talks.
The unexpected arrival of Iran's foreign minister in Malaysia focused attention on the Middle East conflict but also prompted speculation Iran was ready for talks on its own nuclear plans.
However European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who is Europe's chief negotiator in the nuclear talks with Iran, was not due to meet Iran's Manouchehr Mottaki in Kuala Lumpur, an EU official said.
U.N. Security Council members agreed informally in New York on Thursday on a resolution demanding Iran suspend nuclear enrichment and reprocessing work and threatening to consider sanctions if it refuses, diplomats said.
Still the fighting in the Middle East was the biggest focus.
"We're very much concerned at the grave situation taking place in Lebanon and Gaza," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, hosting the forum, said at the opening of the meeting.
Israel called up 15,000 reserve soldiers but ruled out a full-scale invasion of Lebanon against Hizbollah guerrillas, backed by Iran and Syria, as diplomatic divisions appeared to widen on how to end the 17-day-old conflict.
At least 445 people, mostly civilians, have been confirmed killed in Lebanon, as well as 51 Israelis.
BACK TO MIDDLE EAST?
Rice arrived in Kuala Lumpur from a packed round of meetings in the Middle East via a one-day conference in Rome that called for an urgent but not immediate ceasefire.
She said on arrival she was willing to return to the Middle East at any time, but added that only made sense if she could help bring about a lasting peace, underlining Washington's reluctance to rein in Israel while it is fighting Hizbollah.
Malaysia, which also chairs the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with 57 nations the main grouping of Islamic countries, is trying to arrange a summit of the group next week to discuss the Lebanon war.
Iran's Mottaki met his counterparts from Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh on Friday to discuss the Middle East situation, an Asian diplomat said.
A member of his delegation told Reuters no meetings with Rice were planned.
Iran's case was referred back to the Security Council last week after Tehran failed to formally respond to proposals that include diplomatic and economic incentives to try to persuade it to suspend its sensitive nuclear work.
Iran has said it would reply by August 22 to the package offered by the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France -- the five permanent members of the Security Council -- plus Germany. It has rejected calls for a swifter response.
The United States and key European countries fear Iran's nuclear activity is a cover for bomb making. Tehran says it has a right to civilian nuclear power and that its nuclear program is aimed only at producing electricity.
NORTH KOREA MISSILE TALKS
The forum, comprising 24 countries and the EU, had been expected to be dominated by North Korea's nuclear plans amid worldwide outrage following Pyongyang's missile tests on July 5.
All the parties to the stalled six-way talks on North Korea are present in Kuala Lumpur.
Pyongyang reiterated it would not take part in any talks on its nuclear plans in Kuala Lumpur.
"The United States has unilaterally imposed financial sanctions against us, making it impossible for us to go to the six-party talks," North Korean spokesman Jong Song-il said on Friday.
He maintained that the missile tests had been part of a regular military exercise.
"It is a gangster-like act for the U.N. Security Council to take issue with the missiles," he said.
The item is not off the agenda, however. Instead, the other five negotiating parties -- South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- will meet Canada, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Indonesia on Friday to discuss security issues in northeast Asia.
"There is absolutely no support anywhere in the world for the North Korean decision for now to stay out of the six-party talks," said Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy to the talks, after a meeting between Rice and her Japanese counterpart.
"They are completely isolated, and if it's isolation they want, it's going to be isolation they get."
(Additional reporting by Jalil Hamid, George Nishiyama, John Ruwitch, Mark Bendeich, and Sue Pleming)