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Middle East: Diplomatic Efforts Accelerate Amid Calls For Cease-Fire

Smoke over Beirut following a July 19 Israeli missle attack (epa) PRAGUE, July 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora on July 19 issued his most impassioned appeal yet to the international community.

Speaking at a news conference in Beirut, Siniora pleaded for the world to stop sitting on the sidelines and help stop the bombardment of his country.

"I call upon you all to respond immediately without reservation or hesitation to this appeal for an immediate cease-fire and for the lifting of the siege and provide urgent international humanitarian assistance to our war-stricken country," he said.
"There should be no cease-fire as long as we did not accomplish our
mission, and our mission is to destroy the Hizballah in south Lebanon
and fan them off from our northern border." -- Israeli legislator

Siniora said Israel's military campaign has so far killed 300 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and injured some 1,000. In addition, an estimated 500,000 people, or one-eighth of the country's population, has now been displaced by the conflict.

On the Israeli side, 29 people, 14 of them soldiers, have been killed to date.

As the confrontation, which was provoked by Hizballah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers, enters its ninth day, Israel says it cannot accept a cease-fire at this point -- despite the high civilian toll.

'No Cease-Fire With Hizballah'

"There should be no cease-fire as long as we did not accomplish our mission, and our mission is to destroy the Hizballah in south Lebanon and fan them off from our northern border," Israeli legislator Efraim Sneh explained.

"As long as this mission is not fully accomplished there is no reason for a cease-fire because it will allow the Hizballah to continue to resume the fire at their convenience and we are determined this would not happen," he added.

Israel says that before there can be a cease-fire, Hizballah must stop rocket attacks on Israel and return two captured Israeli soldiers and the Lebanese national army must take over Hizballah's positions in southern Lebanon.

Hizballah Continues The Fight

So far, Israel's intensive bombardments and its cross-border raids into Lebanon do not appear to have crippled Hizballah.

Militants continue to fire off volley after volley of rockets into northern Israel. They hit the historic city of Nazareth for the first time on July 19, killing two Israeli-Arab children.

Today, fierce fighting was reported between Hizballah fighters and Israeli forces, just inside the Lebanese border.

Overnight, Israel dropped 23 tons of bombs on a bunker in southern Lebanon where senior Hizballah leaders were believed to be hiding.

But Hizballah's Al-Manar television later reported that "Hizballah denies that any of its leaders or personnel have been killed in the latest air strike on a building in Beirut, which the army of the enemy has claimed to be a hideout for the leaders of Hizballah."

Protecting Civilians

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned all sides on July 19 that they could be committing war crimes, and that soldiers, and especially military commanders, have an obligation to protect civilians during hostilities. She said the bombardment of sites known to harbor civilians is unjustifiable.

The European Commission announced today it will provide 10 million euros ($12.6 million) in initial humanitarian aid to the victims of the Lebanon violence.

International Disagreement On Way Forward

Diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis are set to go into high gear today. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a team of UN mediators who recently visited the Middle East are due to brief the Security Council today.

A Lebanese family crosses border into Syria on July 17 (epa)

But the international community is in disagreement over the best route to take. Washington opposes a proposal that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution urging a cease-fire.

Speaking on July 19 to reporters, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton reinforced those sentiments. "[The] notion that you just declare a cease-fire and act as if that is going to solve the problem, I think is simplistic," he said. "Among other things, I want somebody to address the problem of how you get a cease-fire with a terrorist organization."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has joined the United States in opposing an immediate cessation of hostilities.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with the Moscow daily "Kommersant" today that a cease-fire is an essential first step. France is also pressing for a UN resolution urging a cease-fire.

Evacuations Continue

On the ground in Lebanon today, the evacuation of thousands of foreigners continues apace.

A cruise ship carrying more than 1,000 Americans from Lebanon arrived in the Cyprus port city of Larnaca early today.

The U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, Ronald Schlicher, said the government's effort to evacuate its citizens from Beirut was just beginning, adding that several thousand were expected to arrive in Cyprus over the next few days.

Approximately 2,200 U.S. Marines are in the area ready to assist with the evacuation along with nine military ships.

Great Britain, Greece, France, Australia, and Sweden are among the countries that have sent ships to Beirut to evacuate their citizens. Other countries are helping to transport their nationals by road to Syria and flying them home from there.

Russia has so far repatriated three planeloads of evacuees from Syria. In addition to its own citizens, Russia has also been transporting citizens from CIS states, including Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.