US sends Rice to try to end Middle East war

By Lin Noueihed
Fri Jul 28, 2006 2:05 PM ET

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice back to the Middle East on Saturday for talks on a United Nations resolution to end the 17-day war between Israel and Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas.

President George W. Bush told a news conference on Friday after talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that an international force should be sent quickly into southern Lebanon to secure shipments of humanitarian aid. Blair said a U.N. resolution was needed as soon as possible to end hostilities.

The two leaders met in Washington after a day that saw Israeli forces kill at least 14 people in Lebanon and Hizbollah launch new longer-range missiles at Israel.

The war, which has caused at least 459 deaths in Lebanon and 51 in Israel, erupted after Hizbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a raid into Israel on July 12. Israel, with support from Washington, wants the Shi'ite group to be driven from the border and disarmed.

Rice was in Kuala Lumpur after visiting Lebanon and Israel earlier in the week and attending a conference in Rome that stopped short of calling for the violence to end immediately. Bush said she would return to the Middle East on Saturday.

"Her instructions are to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable U.N. Security Council resolution that we can table next week," he said.

On Friday, aircraft repeatedly bombed villages near Lebanon's southern port of Tyre and Israeli artillery fired hundreds of rounds across the border, killing 10 people, including a Jordanian.

Four people were killed in about 70 air strikes in the eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanese security sources said. And an Israeli military source said three Hizbollah guerrillas were killed in the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil.

Hizbollah fired scores of rockets into Israel, including two that the guerrilla group said were new, longer-range missiles, in a barrage that wounded at least six people, police said.

The longer-range rockets landed in open ground near the town of Afula, about 50 km (30 miles) from the Lebanese border. It matched the furthest that Hizbollah rockets had landed inside Israel since the conflict began.

Hizbollah said it had fired new "Khaibar 1" missiles at Afula, fulfilling a pledge by its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to extend its bombardment of Israel beyond the port of Haifa.

Israeli media reported that a Hizbollah rocket hit a clinic in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya, but no one was hurt.

An Israeli shell exploded near an aid convoy in south Lebanon, wounding at least three people, witnesses said.

The convoy organised by Lebanese civil defense workers was evacuating stranded civilians from Rmeish village to Tyre. Hundreds of Shi'ites had taken refuge in the Christian village, where some were reduced to drinking irrigation water.

"We are with the resistance," Fatmeh Srour told Reuters. "But we need supplies to remain steadfast. My three-month-old baby hasn't eaten for two days because there's no baby milk."

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, the existing U.N. peacekeeping force in the south, said it was temporarily moving unarmed military observers into its positions for safety.

One of its four observer posts was destroyed on Tuesday in an Israeli air strike, killing its four occupants. A second post was vacated earlier after an observer was wounded by Hizbollah gunfire in the border village of Maroun al-Ras.

Israel intensified its bombing a day after deciding to step up air raids and ground forays rather than carry out an invasion of Lebanon.

Fierce fighting and the destruction of roads in the south have created terrifying conditions for civilians, and a U.N. official said the lack of clean water posed a fresh threat.

Aid workers said it was impossible to get medical supplies and food safely to isolated villages because of Israeli bombing.

"In effect there is no real humanitarian access in the south," said Christopher Stokes of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Israel has taken Washington's refusal to demand an immediate ceasefire as tacit permission to pursue an onslaught aimed at crippling Hizbollah.

Hundreds of civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon have led to world pressure for fighting to stop.

Washington insists on finding a durable solution first -- one that eliminates Hizbollah's capacity to threaten Israel.

Blair, who has echoed Bush's line on Lebanon so far, is under domestic pressure to change tack and join Arab and European countries in demanding that the war stop now.

France called again for the United Nations to demand an immediate ceasefire based on a political agreement enabling a U.N.-mandated international force to deploy in the south.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, leading a European Union mission to the region, said the EU wanted an immediate cessation of hostilities. Europeans shared a "growing sense of frustration and anger at the conflict continuing", he added.