Diplomacy intensifies

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) — Envoys from three European countries joined intensifying diplomacy in Israel on Sunday aimed at ending fighting between Israeli forces and Hizbollah that has wrecked swathes of Lebanon and left hundreds dead.

Ministers from France, Germany and Britain held separate talks with Israeli officials ahead of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s arrival in the Middle East. She was due to leave Washington for the region on Sunday and expected to hold meetings in Israel on Tuesday.

Among questions up for discussion was a possible beefed up peacekeeping force for south Lebanon, an idea backed by Israel’s defence minister as a way to keep Hizbollah from the border.

European countries have been far more critical of Israel’s offensive than its main ally, the United States, which has resisted growing calls for a ceasefire and made clear that it blames Iranian-backed Hizbollah for the crisis.

Few expect diplomacy to deliver swift results and an Israeli newspaper reported on Sunday that Israeli officials believe they have a green light from Washington to continue the onslaught on Hizbollah for at least another week.

“My question to Jerusalem and Beirut is the same,” said French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. “How do we reach a ceasefire as quickly as possible?” Douste-Blazy was visiting the Israeli city of Haifa when it came under Hizbollah rocket fire that killed two people and took cover in a stairwell when the sirens sounded.

Israeli attacks aimed at Hizbollah have killed more than 360 Lebanese, most of them civilians, since the group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Israeli troops have edged into southern Lebanon.

A total of 37 Israelis have died, 17 of them civilians killed by Hizbollah rockets rained on the north of the country.

Douste-Blazy, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells all had meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

“There must be efforts that would lead to calming the situation. We have to continue those efforts especially with the increasing number of civilian victims,” Steinmeier told a news conference after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There are extremists in the region who should not dictate the Middle East process.” Howells, who has delivered Britain’s strongest criticism of Israel’s offensive, stressed his concern at the attacks.

“I am very disturbed the more I hear about the extent of this military campaign. At some stages there are 60 jets out there over the Mediterranean waiting to hit targets,” he told a news briefing in Haifa.

“We want to see an early cessation of this conflict.” German and British ministers both said they did not think their countries would send troops for any expanded force in south Lebanon. Israel’s Defence Minister Amir Peretz earlier welcomed the idea of an international border force, possibly led by NATO countries, and stronger than the current UN mission.

Rice has said an immediate ceasefire would be a “false promise” that would let Hizbollah reemerge to attack Israel.

Foreign ministers from the world’s most powerful countries and Arab states are due to hold an emergency meeting in Rome on Wednesday to discuss the crisis. No decision on international action is likely before that.

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