Rice begins Middle East mission

6C06A14FAAC0425AA510D6C9C1D67548.jpg Rice told Fouad Siniora that there could no ceasefire until Hezbollah released two Israeli soldiers captured during a raid and pull back from the border with Israel, a Lebanese source said.The source quoted Rice as saying there the pair would have to be released unconditionally and Hezbollah forces moved about 20km from the border.

“The tone of the meeting was very negative,” the source added.

Siniora has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire since fighting began 13 days ago.

He has said only a broad political deal – including a prisoner swap and an Israeli pullout from the disputed Shebaa Farms area – will work.
   
Later in her visit Rice told Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri that “the situation on the border cannot return to what it was before July 12,” a Lebanese political source said, referring to the day the two Israeli soldiers were captured.

Humanitarian situation

Before meeting Berri, Rice said she was concerned about the humanitarian situation. “I am deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring,” Rice told reporters.

Berri is a Shia Muslim politician who has liaised between Siniora and Hezbollah leaders since the fighting began.

On her way to the region, Rice had said she wanted to create conditions for a sustainable ceasefire in a war that has already killed at least 377 in Lebanon and 37 Israelis.
   
A US official with Rice said she would announce aid for Lebanon, where Israeli bombing has displaced half a million people and wrecked installations worth an estimated $1 billion.

Rice left Beirut for meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On Wednesday she will go to Rome to discuss the crisis with European and Arab foreign ministers.

Peacekeeping force

Several countries have suggested an international peacekeeping force to prevent further Hezbollah attacks in southern Lebanon.

 
 

Israel has dropped its objections to the force and several European Union nations have said they would contribute troops, but EU officials said questions remained over how it could fulfil its mission.

Britain has backed the use of an international force as a “buffer” between Hezbollah and Israel. Prime Minister Tony Blair said he hopes a peace plan could emerge in days that would lead to a ceasefire    AE32132939C542A89E3094EFCFEE71381.jpg

Blair has been under political pressure in Britain for joining George Bush in not publicly calling for an immediate ceasefire.
   
Blair said that did not mean he was indifferent to the deaths of civilians, but that a ceasefire would only work if conditions were first put in place to ensure both sides respected it.

Military commitments

Although Blair has been one of the prime backers of an international force, Britain is unlikely to contribute to one because of military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference says it also supports the idea of an international force in southern Lebanon.

EU foreign and security affairs chief Javier Solana said deploying a multinational force would be a difficult undertaking but is “a real possibility.”

NATO reacted cautiously to calls for it to lead the peacekeeping force and diplomats pointed out the military alliance is already hugely stretched, notably in Afghanistan.
  
“There are huge challenges involved for any kind of intervention force,” said one NATO source in Brussels.
  
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization in theory has the command structure, planning capability and political coordination capability to run a multi-national operation, said the source. But he added: “What (NATO) allies are willing to put at its disposal is a different question.”

The Washington Post reported that France and Turkey could provide a significant number of troops, but NATO sources said getting enough fire power would be a “huge challenge.”

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