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Rice Welcomes Cease-Fire Pledge By Hizballah Ministers

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (right) is due in Israel later on July 29 (file photo) (epa) July 29, 2006 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today welcomed the agreement by Lebanon's Hizballah cabinet members to seek an immediate cease-fire that would include the disarming of Hizballah fighters.

This would be keeping with the U.S. line so far in the crisis, which is that a suspension of hostilities should not simply mean a return to the old status quo, with a powerful and militant Hizballah force controlling Lebanon's borders with Israel. The difficulty of persuading Hizballah to disarm were immediately highlighted by Hizballah, which said in a July 29 statement that the United States and Israel must be denied any political gains from the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon.

Rice may have better immediate prospects of success with her new diplomatic mission. The main purpose of Rice's trip to Jerusalem is, Israeli government spokesman Avia Pazner says, to present Israeli leaders with "concrete" proposals for deploying a UN-backed multinational force in southern Lebanon.

U.S. President George W. Bush said on July 28 that a multinational force should be sent to Lebanon quickly.

The UN Security Council is expected to meet to discuss the possibility in the coming week. Bush said the United States' "goal is a Chapter 7 resolution setting out a clear framework for cessation of hostilities on an urgent basis and mandating the multinational force."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called a meeting for July 31 to discuss the composition of stabilization force to be deployed along the Lebanon-Israel border.

It could potentially be drawn from the European Union and from countries that already have contributed to a 2,000-member UN observation mission in southern Lebanon. However, many European countries already have troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere, and it may therefore be hard to persuade them to send fresh troops into another conflict zone.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already indicated that Germany would be unlikely to contribute manpower. In a newspaper interview to be published on July 30, Merkel said no decision had been made yet on whether to send German troops to the Middle East but she said the capacity of the German armed forces to take part in overseas operations is "to a large extent exhausted." Germany would, she says, be better able to train Lebanon's police and army. German troops are currently serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Balkans, and in Afghanistan.

Any UN-led force would require a mandate from the Security Council, the UN's top body.

On The Ground

On the ground, there is no sign of a lull in the fighting, with Israeli bombers continuing to pound sites across Lebanon and with further reports of fighting along the border. The latest casualty figures produced by the Israeli military suggest that its troops killed 26 Hizballah militants around the town of Bint Jbail on July 28, a Hizballah stronghold. Israel says its forces have killed around 230 militants since the conflict began on July 12. This is a far higher figure than the 35 deaths confirmed by Hizballah.

Hizballah continues to fire missiles into Israel and said on July 29 that it had fired new, longer-range rockets at targets in Israel.

Diplomatic efforts by the UN to alleviate the plight of Lebanese civilians have suffered a setback, with Israel rejecting an appeal to fighting for 72 hours, to give time to evacuate civilians.

It says there is no need for a cease-fire because it has opened a humanitarian aid corridor to and from Lebanon.

Meanwhile, another aspect of the crisis came into sharper focus, with Lebanon's environment minister saying that the Mediterranean faces its worst-ever environmental catastrophe following Israel's bombardment of fuel tanks at a power plant in southern Lebanon.

Yacub Sarraf said as much as 15,000 tonnes of crude oil already has spilled into the Mediterranean Sea in the two weeks since the plant was first bombed. Parts of Lebanon's shoreline are now covered with oil and Sarrat said the slick threatens to pollute the coastlines of other eastern Mediterranean countries.

And in Palestine, Israel has again gone on the offensive. Israeli tanks entered the Gaza Strip early on July 29, one day after pulling out after an offensive that killed an estimated 30 Palestinians. Palestinian security officials said that seven tanks had crossed Gaza's northern border. The Israeli Army's incursion into Gaza was launched after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, and killing of two others on June 25.

The Global Ripples

The impact of the conflict has also been felt around the globe in the past 24 hours.

In the United States, initial reports suggest that the killing of a woman a Jewish organization of Seattle may have had some connection with events in Lebanon. Staff members say the gunman said "I am a Muslim American, angry at Israel" before opening fire. Five people were injured. The group had organized a rally last week in support of Israel's military campaign in Lebanon.

In Australia, police had to prevent pro-Lebanon protesters from mobbing Prime Minister John Howard. About 200 demonstrators surrounded the prime minister's car, demanding immediate action to bring an end to Israeli attacks.

In Britain, the impact has been less violent, but is damaging politically. Media reports that U.S. planes carrying bombs to Israel had been designated as civilian flights and that the U.S. authorities had failed to notify Britain of their contents were confirmed when, on July 28, U.S. President Bush apologized to British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a failure to follow proper procedures. The incident has heightened criticism about Britain's relatively close alignment with the United States during the crisis.