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Rice Makes Surprise Visit to Beirut

UN news

July 24, 2006

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Lebanon Monday to launch diplomatic efforts aimed at ending 13 days of warfare as Israeli ground forces pushed deeper into the country in heavy fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas.

Ms. Rice arrived in Beirut in the afternoon and was to meet Prime Minister Fuad Saniora in the previously unannounced stopover before she heads to Israel, Mr. Saniora's office said. She is set to meet Monday night with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and on Tuesday with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ms. Rice's mission is the first U.S. effort on the ground to try to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. President Bush has opposed an immediate ceasefire, saying the root cause of the conflict -- Hezbollah's domination of south Lebanon -- must be resolved. His administration has said international peacekeepers might be needed in Lebanon once that issue is dealt with.

"We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal," Ms. Rice said on her way to Lebanon. But she added that if the violence ends only to restart within weeks, "then all of the carnage that Hezbollah launched by its illegal activities - abducting the soldiers and then launching rocket attacks - we will have gotten nothing from that."

Her visit comes as battles between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas intensified. Heavy fighting erupted as Israel pushed further into Lebanon, heading toward a Hezbollah stronghold. At least nine Israeli soldiers were wounded in the advance, the military said.

Israeli troops took control of a hilltop in the Lebanese town of Bint Jbail after a heavy artillery barrage, but the army hadn't taken the town itself, military officials said. Israeli casualties were seen being carried back into Israel on stretchers. Israeli media said warplane attacks had led to some Hezbollah casualties.

Bint Jbail, a major town, is about 1.25 miles (two kilometers) north of the hilltop village of Maroun al-Ras, another Hezbollah center. Over the weekend, Israeli ground troops fought for control of Maroun al-Ras, which is less than 500 yards from the border.

The army said it was expanding its ground operation in Lebanon, which had been limited during the two-week offensive to pinpoint operations near the border -- a policy that military analysts said may well be insufficient to achieve Israel's goal of pushing Hezbollah back and destroying its ability to attack Israel.

Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman said on Israel Army Radio the operation would continue for up to 10 days "in order to achieve the basic goals we set down," including trying to stop Hezbollah rocket fire.

Israel Radio also reported Monday that Israeli airstrikes destroyed nine rocket launchers in the area of Tyre, a Lebanese port 12 miles north of the Israeli border, where Hezbollah guerrillas have been firing rockets at the port of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city. The report said one attack knocked out a 14-tube launcher that was to be used Monday for further rocket strikes. The army said it captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, the first time it had taken any into custody during the fighting. Two more rockets were fired into Israel on Monday, landing in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, rescue officials said. No casualties or damage were reported.

As Ms. Rice was en route to the region, she said the U.S.'s poor relationship with Syria is overstated and indicated openness to working with Damascus to resolve the crisis in the Middle East. "We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal," Ms. Rice said. But she added that if the violence ends only to restart within weeks, "then all of the carnage that Hezbollah launched by its illegal activities, abducting the soldiers and then launching rocket attacks, we will have gotten nothing from that."

With Israel and the U.S. saying a real cease-fire isn't possible until Hezbollah is reined in, Arab heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia were pushing Syria to end its support for the guerrillas, Arab diplomats in Cairo said. The two moderate Arab governments were prepared to spend heavily from Egypt's political capital in the region and Saudi Arabia's vast financial reserves to break Damascus from the guerrillas and Iran, the diplomats said.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the military wouldn't launch a full-fledged invasion but instead carry out a series of small scale raids into the south. Mr. Peretz said that once the offensive had gotten Hezbollah away from the border, his country would be willing to see an international force move in to help the Lebanese army deploy across the south, where the guerrillas have held sway for years.

More foreigners evacuated Lebanon by sea from Beirut port. The European Union was sending a ship to the southern port of Tyre on Monday and Canadians were sending another ship on Tuesday to pick up stranded foreigners who wish to get out of the bomb-ravaged area, whose road access has been cut by the destruction of highways and bridges in Israeli airstrikes. About 4,500 British citizens and 12,000 Americans have left and the sea evacuation was nearing completion. British officials said they had no more citizens asking to go.

The respite in bombardment came after attacks on Sunday claimed more lives, four deaths in Lebanon, including a journalist, as Israeli missiles struck a convoy of fleeing Lebanese; and two in a barrage of Hezbollah rockets on Israel's third-largest city of Haifa. At least 381 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah fighters, according to security officials. At least 600,000 Lebanese have fled their homes, according to the World Health Organization, with one estimate by Lebanon's finance minister putting the number at 750,000, nearly 20% of the population. Israel's death toll stands at 36, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 19 soldiers killed in the fighting.

Officials were trying to speed the delivery of aid down bomb-shattered roads to the south where they're needed most, though Israel hasn't defined a safe route to the region. Tens of thousands have fled the war zone, packing into the southern port city of Sidon and other refuges. Two convoys carrying generators for hospitals, food, tarpaulins and hygienic kits were heading from Beirut to Tyre and the southern city of Marjayoun on Monday, said International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman in Lebanon Hisham Hassan.

Aid was starting to move into Beirut port after Israel opened it for humanitarian ships. An Italian warship brought food, medicine, tents, blankets, water, electrical generators and ambulances. A ferry carrying supplies from France also arrived. The top U.N. humanitarian official, in Beirut to organize the aid effort, said he would issue a call for at least $100 million in immediate aid, but said billions of dollars would be needed to repair the damage from an assault that has stunned Lebanon just as it had emerged from reconstruction after years of civil war.

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