Israel shuns UN truce plea

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to Jerusalem on Saturday to discuss ways to end the 18-day-old war in Lebanon as Israel rejected a United Nations plea for a truce to aid civilians trapped by fighting.

“There is no need for a 72-hour temporary ceasefire because Israel has opened a humanitarian corridor to and from Lebanon,” said Israeli government spokesperson Avi Pazner.

While Israel has let aid shipments through its blockade of Lebanon, international relief agencies say they have been unable to get Israel to guarantee safe passage to civilians in southern areas hardest hit by Israeli bombing aimed at Hezbollah.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland asked on Friday for the 72-hour truce to let relief workers evacuate elderly, young and wounded people and deliver emergency aid.

Rice, who visited Jerusalem and Beirut earlier in the week, was expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the evening and hold more talks in Israel on Sunday.

She will also hold talks with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has been pleading for an immediate ceasefire.

Speaking to reporters on the way to Israel from Malaysia, Rice said she expected tough talks with Lebanon and Israel. “These are really hard and emotional decisions in a difficult set of circumstances. So I expect the discussions to be difficult, but there will have to be give and take,” she said.

Pazner said Rice would come with “concrete ideas” on the deployment of an international force in south Lebanon.

“She will be able to tell us exactly what kind of international force has to be sent here and what kind of resolution has to be passed by the UN,” he said.

US President George Bush said Rice’s mission was to “work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable UN Security Council resolution that we can table next week”.

Washington has pledged $30-million to help Lebanon but America’s attitude to the war has angered many Lebanese.

“They send the Israelis smart bombs and they send us blankets. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t let this ship dock here. I would dump this stuff in the sea,” said a Lebanese soldier watching US relief goods being unloaded in Beirut.

A US military catamaran had brought blankets, tarpaulins and medical kits for some of the 800 000 people displaced by the war. It was the first such seaborne US aid shipment.

International force

Bush, speaking after talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday, said an international force should be sent quickly to help the Lebanese army deploy in the south.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has invited countries willing to join such a force to meet in New York on Monday to begin planning, even though its mandate has yet to be set by the Security Council, which is expected to meet later in the week.

Major powers have said an international force cannot deploy in the south while fighting continues and cannot operate without the consent of Lebanon, Israel and Hezbollah.

Bush and Blair did not call for an immediate ceasefire, saying a settlement must tackle Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. Bush has said the Shi’ite Muslim guerrillas and their main allies Syria and Iran are to blame for the conflict.

Hezbollah says it is fighting a US-Israeli plan to wipe out all Israel’s foes in the Middle East.

Lebanon’s Siniora argues that the main problems include Israel’s occupation of the disputed Shebaa Farms area, claimed by Lebanon, and its detention of Lebanese prisoners.

International concern has mounted at civilian casualties in the war and at the humanitarian crisis it has caused in Lebanon.

At least 462 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon since the conflict erupted on July 12 when Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Hezbollah, which wants to swap the soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, has killed 51 Israelis, 18 of them civilians hit by rockets fired into the Jewish state.

Viyay Nambiar, political adviser to Annan, said on Saturday Israel’s response in Lebanon had been disproportionate.

“It has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties and ... damage to civilian infrastructure of a truly vast kind,” he told India’s NDTV television channel.

The Lebanon war has overshadowed the conflict in the Gaza Strip, where Israel is waging a month-old offensive to recover a soldier captured by militants and halt Palestinian rocket fire.

Israeli aircraft bombed a suspected Hamas weapons factory and border tunnel in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, and ground forces later entered the north of the territory searching for explosives and tunnels, the army said.

At least 150 Palestinians, about half of them gunmen, have been killed in the offensive. Israel has rejected demands for a prisoner exchange by the gunmen who captured Corporal Gilad Shalit by tunnelling under the border on June 25.—Reuters

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