Israel pulls out of Hizbollah stronghold as Rice visits

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Reuters) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started talks in Israel on Saturday to seek a deal on an international force to end fighting in Lebanon but Hizbollah charged her trip would only serve Israeli interests.

Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah vowed more attacks on Israel’s cities if it did not end an offensive launched after the  group  captured  two soldiers  in  a  raid  on July 12.

“Rice is returning to the region to try to impose her conditions on Lebanon again to serve her new Middle East project and to serve Israel,” Nasrallah said in a televised address, as Rice made her second trip to Israel this week.

Rice, who dined with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday evening, said she hoped for agreement on the main conditions for a ceasefire to be outlined in a UN resolution that could be tabled as early as Tuesday.

“I expect the discussions to be difficult, but there will have to be give and take,” Rice told reporters.

“I assume and have every reason to believe that leadership on both sides of this crisis would like to see it end.” Rice and Olmert were not scheduled to brief the media after their dinner given the sensitive stage of negotiations.

At least 469 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon in the conflict, and 51 Israelis have died.

In the latest fighting, an Israeli air strike killed a woman and six children in a house in the southern village of Nmeiriya, medics said. Another strike also wounded two Indian soldiers with the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

Israel dismissed a UN proposal for a three-day truce to aid civilians trapped by fighting, saying it was already allowing aid shipments through its blockade of Lebanon. It has allowed a UN envoy access to the military to coordinate aid.

Meanwhile, Israel’s forces pulled out of the Hizbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, just across the border, that was scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the 18-day conflict.

 

Give and take

 

Rice welcomed an agreement on Thursday by Hizbollah Cabinet members in Lebanon to seek an immediate ceasefire that would include the disarming of factions, and praised Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora for persuading Hizbollah to agree.

Siniora, whom Rice will meet during her stay in the Middle East, argues that the main issues to be resolved include Israel’s occupation of the Shebaa Farms area, claimed by Lebanon, and its detention of Lebanese prisoners.

In a softening of Israel’s position that could help Rice steer the sides towards a ceasefire, a senior foreign ministry official said Israel would not demand the immediate disarming of Hizbollah, although it still wants it disarmed eventually.

The official said Israel would demand that the proposed international peacekeeping force in south Lebanon keep Hizbollah away from the Israeli border and prevent the group from replenishing its stockpile of rockets from Syria and Iran.

Hizbollah would almost certainly reject a peacekeeping force whose mandate calls for its disarmament.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called a meeting in New York on Monday to get troop contributions for an international force, which could be 15,000-20,000 strong, even though its mandate has yet to be set by the Security Council.

The group launched long-range missiles deeper into Israel on Friday, fulfilling Nasrallah’s pledge to hit targets further south than Israel’s third largest city Haifa.

“The Israelis are ready to halt the aggression because they are afraid of the unknown,” Nasrallah said. “The one pushing for the continuation of the aggression is the US administration.” Hizbollah fired more than 90 rockets from southern Lebanon into northern Israel on Saturday, lightly wounding about a dozen people, the army and medics said. They have launched more than 1,500 rockets into Israel since the conflict started.

 

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Rice’s visit comes as the United States has faced mounting criticism for not calling for an immediate ceasefire and for giving Israel  an apparent green light to continue its offensive.

US President George W. Bush said on Saturday his country would work to end the violence quickly to defeat the threat from Hizbollah and its main allies, Syria and Iran. Nasrallah said Iran and Syria were still standing alongside Lebanon.

“We must recognise that Lebanon is the latest flashpoint in a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.

Israeli air strikes cut Lebanon’s main road to Damascus on Saturday to stop weapons supply routes to Hizbollah from Syria.

Israel said its forces had killed around 70 to 80 Hizbollah fighters in southern Lebanon in recent days. Hizbollah says only 31 of its fighters have died in the war.

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