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Olmert rules out halt to Lebanon offensive

Yana Dlugy / AFP | July 25 2006

JERUSALEM: Israel vowed Tuesday to press on with its war on Hezbollah, effectively ruling out any chance of an early ceasefire in the bloody two-week-old Lebanon conflict despite a mission to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

An entire family of seven was killed when a missile slammed into their home in southern Lebanon as Israel pressed on with its air bombardments and besieged a key border town where Hezbollah has a military headquarters.

"Israel is determined to carry on the fight against Hezbollah," Olmert said at a press conference with Rice, on the latest leg of her tour to discuss a conflict that now left more than 380 people dead in Lebanon alone.

But Olmert said: "We are not fighting the Lebanese government or the Lebanese people. We are fighting against Hezbollah." Rice, in Israel after making a surprise visit to war-battered Beirut, repeated Washington's stance that an immediate ceasefire would only put off a long-term solution to the conflict.

"A durable solution will be one that strengthens the forces of peace and democracy in the region," she said. "The people of this region, Israelis, Lebanese, and the Palestinians have lived too long in fear, and in terror, and in violence." In Lebanon, she had said she was "deeply concerned" about the plight of civilians and the government announced a 30 million dollar immediate aid package, with US forces due to begin airlifting supplies on Tuesday.

She is also due to hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas likely to be focused on Israel's similarly aggressive offensive on the Gaza Strip, where more than 100 people have died in an operation to free a captured soldier and halt rocket attacks.

The United States has been steadfast in its support for Israel's fearsome war on Hezbollah -- even sending in more weapons -- despite the heavy human cost of the conflict.

More than 380 people have been killed in Lebanon alone, most of them civilians, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes, creating what the United Nations warns is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Rice held talks with Lebanese leaders including Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on her trip to Beirut, where she reportedly outlined plans for a ceasefire that would involve creating an internationally-patrolled buffer zone in southern Lebanon and a Hezbollah withdrawal from the border area.

Washington had faced calls for bold action amid criticism it was stalling to allow Israel time to attempt to wipe out the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which provoked the conflict after seizing two soldiers on July 12.

But Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, who is acting as an intermediary for Hezbollah, rejected Rice's reported plan and said there must first be a ceasefire and a prisoner swap.

Israel is struggling to knock out Hezbollah despite its vastly superior military might and has now suggested it would accept some form of international force in southern Lebanon, currently in the grip of the Shiite militia.

Israeli forces however said they were in control of the border town of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold, as troops in tanks and bulldozers pushed even deeper into Lebanon.

"Beit Jbeil is in our hands," General Alon Friedman, one of Israel's top commanders for its northern region, told army radio.

"Our aim in Beit Jbeil is to destroy the infrastructure of Hezbollah and to liquidate that organization's terrorists in order to reduce the (rocket) attacks on the north." The Israeli government has massed troops on the border and warned residents of southern Lebanon to flee but says it has no plans for an all-out invasion -- for now.

Two soldiers were killed in fighting on Monday, bringing to 41 -- 24 servicemen and 17 civilians -- the toll of Israelis killed since the crisis erupted.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's closest ally, called the conflict a "catastrophe" that was damaging fledgling democracy in Lebanon, a country that had gradually been rebuilding since the 1975-90 civil war and the end of Syria's long military and political dominance last year.

He said he hoped a plan would be announced in the next few days to bring about an end to the worst cross-border conflict since Israel invaded its northern neighbour in 1982.

The offensive has left Lebanon virtually cut off from the world, made hundreds of thousands of people refugees in their own country and destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure.

Siniora, in his meeting with Rice, again accused Israel of trying to set back his country 50 years.

Israel launched a public relations offensive led by its best-known elder statesman Shimon Peres to tell the world why it was not yet silencing its guns.

"The free world is facing a threat, the goal of Hezbollah is to set the world aflame and we will not let them succeed," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah remained defiant, vowing that deeper incursions would not stop the rocket fire, and ruling out any efforts for a negotiated settlement unless it involved a prisoner swap.

UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland, issuing an urgent appeal for 150 million dollars for 800,000 people made homeless by Israel's onslaught, criticised both Israel and Hezbollah for attacking civilians.

"My position is very clear -- the hostilities must stop immediately. Civilian populations are not targets. That is against the law, humanitarian law." He also branded the Shiite militants "cowards" for boasting that Lebanese civilians rather than their fighters were bearing the brunt of the Israeli bombardments.

In the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army is fighting a second offensive aimed at retrieving a captive soldier and halting rocket attacks, six Palestinians including two children were killed by Israeli fire on Monday.

The deaths bring to 113 the number of Palestinians killed since Israel began a massive military operation there late last month which has targeted the ruling Hamas movement.

Southeast Asian nations called for an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East and condemned Israel's "excessive" military operations in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, saying the situation threatened international peace and security.

As the bombardments continued, foreign governments have laid on ferries, warships and cruise liners to evacuate stranded nationals, mainly to the nearby resort island of Cyprus which has been battling to find temporary accommodation and flights for the estimated 70,000 evacuees at peak summer holiday season.--AFP

 

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