Rice in Beirut for talks with Lebanese premier

vert.rice.lebanon.afp.gif“Thank you for your courage and steadfastness,” Rice said upon meeting Siniora, according to The Associated Press. The premier kissed her on both cheeks and said Lebanon is hoping to “put an end to the war being inflicted on Lebanon,” the AP reported.

Amid the diplomacy, an Israeli military helicopter crashed Monday in an accident on the Israeli side of its border with Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The IDF reported an unknown number of casualties in the crash. Israeli military sources said there was “very fierce fighting” in the area.

As the Israeli military and Hezbollah guerrillas trade attacks, the United States and Israel have been calling on Lebanon to pressure Hezbollah to end rocket attacks across the Lebanon-Israel border. Rice is also expected to meet Monday with Israeli officials.

The Lebanon leg of Rice’s mission, not officially announced for security reasons, is aimed at assessing the humanitarian situation in the region, paving the way for increased relief aid and to discuss ways to end the crisis, a senior U.S. State Department official said.

The official said it was Rice’s idea to stop in Beirut, despite the security risks, to show the Lebanese people “we are here, we are concerned.”

“The fact that we are going to go right into Beirut after all that has happened is a dramatic signal to Lebanon and this government,” the official said.

Before her arrival in Lebanon, Rice said the United States recognized the need for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, but only when the conditions are right.

“We believe that a cease-fire is urgent,” Rice told reporters on a flight from Washington to a refueling stop in Ireland. “It is important, however, to have conditions that will make it sustainable.”

Siniora has been calling for a cease-fire in the conflict, which began July 12 after Hezbollah guerillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid. Since then, Israeli artillery and warplanes have been pounding Lebanon while Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel.

Rice’s visit follows trips to the region by European and U.N. diplomats who’ve joined Lebanon’s calls for a cease-fire. The United States has not called for an end to the fighting, arguing that leaving Hezbollah in place on Israel’s northern border would only make further conflict inevitable.

Rice said she has been consulting with U.N. and Israeli officials about elements of a cease-fire that would ensure Lebanon had control of its country.

“The really important thing here is that whatever we do has to contribute to Lebanon’s regaining sovereignty over all its territory,” Rice said.

“It’s just very important that we work urgently, but that we also work in a way that is going to push this forward, not backwards.”

Rice is scheduled to visit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. She will also attend an international conference in Rome, Italy, on crafting a peace agreement and shoring up Lebanon’s government.

Rice does not plan to meet with Hezbollah or with Syrian leaders.

Marking the level of diplomatic leverage being applied to this trip, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch and deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams are traveling with Rice and will stay in the region as the secretary of state continues to Rome and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, later in the week.

“We intend to treat the government of Lebanon with the respect that it deserves and also with the great desire … to see it able to extend its sovereignty over its territory,” Rice said.

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