Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Annan pushes for an immediate cease-fire

By VICTOR L. SIMPSON, Associated Press

ROME - U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan on Wednesday called for participants at a Mideast conference to push for an immediate cease-fire to end fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, and said that an international force is vital to a peaceful solution.

The U.N. chief said Hezbollah must stop its "deliberate targeting of Israeli population centers" and that Israel must end all bombing, ground operations and blockades of Lebanese ports.

Senior officials from the United States, Europe and several Arab nations met to work on a plan for ending more than two weeks of fighting, even as Israeli troops and Hezbollah continued to clash.

Much of the discussion will likely focus on efforts by the Europeans and others to overcome strong U.S. and British opposition to an immediate cease-fire. The Americans are against a quick truce, arguing that a cessation of violence must also lead to a durable peace and ensure that Hezbollah is no longer a threat to Israel.

In a first sign of a concrete proposal, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema called on participants to agree on an international donors conference for the reconstruction of Lebanon, his spokesman, Pasquale Ferrara, told reporters.

The foreign ministers and other senior officials from 15 nations, as well as Annan and representatives from the European Union and the World Bank, will also discuss the possible deployment of a multinational force to stabilize Lebanon's border with Israel and help disarm Hezbollah guerrillas.

The meeting comes as the violence threatens to spiral further. Over the past day, ground fighting intensified, Hezbollah's leader threatened to strike deeper into Israel, and
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned the conflict could trigger "a hurricane" of broader fighting in the Middle East.

An Israeli airstrike on a U.N. observation post in southern Lebanon that killed four unarmed U.N. observers is also likely to further fuel international demands for an immediate cease-fire.

Annan said the airstrike late Tuesday was "apparently deliberate" and demanded an investigation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Annan on Wednesday to express his "deep regret over the mistaken killing," Olmert's office said.

Officials in Brussels told The Associated Press that Javier Solana, the EU foreign and security affairs chief, will propose that a rapid reaction force be established. It would ideally be built around French, German and Spanish troops, supplemented by forces from Turkey, the Netherlands, Canada and Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, EU officials said.

Solana said Tuesday that an international force for Lebanon should represent a broad sweep of nations to generate the widest possible public support in the Middle East and have a robust
United Nations mandate to use force, if necessary.

He gave no details of timing or duration of any peacekeeping mission.
Britain's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said the focus of Wednesday's meeting would also be on responding to humanitarian needs of the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced or otherwise affected by the fighting.

"First we want to see something done for these terrible humanitarian problems in Lebanon," Beckett said as she entered the talks. "Second, we need an international plan to enable us to bring a durable end to the hostilities. That's the thing that everybody wants."

"And third of all, what we need is to make sure that we are shoring up and strengthening the government of Lebanon rather than weakening it," Beckett said.

In a signal that the U.S. was not yet ready to change its position on a cease-fire, an official traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that a truce cannot be reached overnight.

Italian Premier Romano Prodi, delivering opening remarks, appealed to the delegations to show "determination and unity" to overcome differences over how to deal with the crisis, triggered by a June 12 cross-border Hezbollah raid in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and eight others were killed.

Apparently seeking to play down expectations, though, Prodi described the conference as a "starting point."

Annan said Monday that he wants the Rome conference to agree on a package to stop the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting and ensure lasting peace between Israel and Lebanon.

In the short term, he said, urgent measures are needed to halt the violence and get humanitarian aid to the Lebanese uprooted by the fighting. But the package should also include a cease-fire, deployment of an international force and the release of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah, he said.

The United Nations already has a peacekeeping force of 2,000 military personnel in Lebanon — called UNIFIL — with a mission to patrol the border. But that force, deployed since 1978, has been ineffective in stopping violence in the zone it patrols.

Italy, host of Wednesday's conference, has said it would support the idea of a multinational force and participate in one provided there was a strong mandate from the United Nations.

Israel — which had so far called for the Lebanese army to take control of the area — signaled a policy shift when it said Sunday that it would accept a new international force, preferably from
NATO.

French President Jacques Chirac said Wednesday that NATO should not lead a proposed international force in Lebanon, saying it instead should be placed under United Nations authority.

Germany on Tuesday said a cease-fire must be in place before there can be any thought of sending international troops to Lebanon.

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