Delegates walk out of UN summit during Ahmadinejad speech

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being a cruel and racist regime in a speech given at an anti-racism conference in Switzerland, prompting several angry Western delgates to walk out.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being a cruel and racist regime in a speech given Monday at an anti-racism conference in Switzerland, prompting several angry Western delegates to walk out.

A protester is led away by UN security as he tries to interrupt the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN conference in Geneva on Monday. ((Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press))

In his speech at the UN-sponsored summit in Geneva, Ahmadinejad claimed Israel, the United States and Europe were destabilizing the world. He said Israel was created on the "pretext of Jewish suffering" after the Second World War.

He denounced the establishment of what he called "a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine."

Two protesters sporting rainbow-coloured wigs tried to disrupt Ahmadinejad's address. One shouted "Racist! Racist!" and one threw a soft red object at Ahmadinejad, hitting the podium.

A Jewish student group from France later took credit for causing the disturbance, saying members threw clown noses to "symbolize the masquerade that this conference represents."

Ahmadinejad has suggested the Holocaust never took place and does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

"As soon as he started to address the question of the Jewish people and Israel, we had no reason to stay in the room," said French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattei.

While 40 diplomats representing Britain, France and other European countries left later, Ahmadinejad was applauded by some Middle Eastern and African delegates, said the CBC's Ann MacMillan, reporting from London.

"This is really damaging for the conference," she said.

"It’s hard to see how the five-day-long conference will get back on track now, and on a wider scale, it doesn’t augur very well for recent U.S. attempts to mend bridges with Iran."

Later, about 100 members of mainly pro-Israel and Jewish groups tried to block Ahmadinejad's entrance to a scheduled news conference.

Prominent Western nations boycott meeting

The summit was held to review progress in fighting racism since the UN's first such meeting eight years ago in South Africa. That event was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery.

Israel, Canada, the United States, Germany, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland are boycotting Monday's summit. They are concerned it will be hijacked by antagonism toward Israel, as they say it was in 2001.

But France and Britain are attending the five-day conference. After Ahmadinejad's speech, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the Iranian leader's comments but said Britain would continue to attend the conference.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned what he called "an intolerable call to racist hate" and urged a firm reaction by the European Union.

Of the countries whose delegates walked out during the speech, only the Czech Republic said it was withdrawing from the conference entirely.

Ahmadinejad gestures after a bilateral meeting with Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations on Monday. ((Laurent Gillieron/Keystone/Associated Press))

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who met with Ahmadinejad ahead of the conference, criticized his comments Monday.

Ban said the Iranian leader used his speech "to accuse, divide and even incite," directly opposing the aim of the meeting.

Israel recalls ambassador to Switzerland

Earlier, Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland to protest a Sunday meeting between the Swiss president and Ahmadinejad ahead of the summit.

"The meeting between the president of a democratic country with an infamous Holocaust denier such as the president of Iran, who calls for Israel's destruction, does not mesh with the values that Switzerland represents and that are supposed to be represented at the UN conference on racism," the ministry said in a statement.

Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz defended his meeting with Ahmadinejad, saying Monday that Switzerland has traditionally acted as a mediator.

Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran since the two countries broke off formal relations in 1980.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Washington would be in contact with Iran through Swiss representatives about last week's conviction of jailed U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who has been sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly spying.

A Swiss government statement late Sunday confirmed Merz and Ahmadinejad discussed the fate of Saberi.

With files from The Associated Press