Lebanon battles rage as peace talks fail

By Alistair Lyon

BEIRUT - World diplomats meeting in Rome overnight failed to agree on calling for an immediate end to the 15-day-old war between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Foreign ministers at the crisis conference pledged to work urgently for a "lasting, permanent and sustainable" cease-fire, but did not call for the fighting to stop now, as Lebanon and its Arab allies had demanded.

Israel's offensive is by no means over, an Israeli general said. "Given the progress over the last two weeks, I reckon it will continue for several more weeks," Major-General Udi Adam, head of the northern command, said.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has insisted that no truce can be sought unless the status quo is changed.

"We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a cease-fire that will be sustainable," Rice told a closing news conference in Rome.

The United States has backed Israeli demands for Hizbollah to pull back from the border and ultimately disarm.

In the latest fighting, Lebanese security sources said guerrillas ambushed an Israeli force advancing on the town of Bint Jbeil, 4km from the frontier.

Hizbollah sources said the Israeli force was cut off and most of its vehicles were destroyed. "Our men can hear the screams of their wounded calling for help," one source said.

The Israeli army said eight of its soldiers were killed and 22 wounded. Arabic media had reported that as many as 13 soldiers died in the clash.

Several Israeli soldiers were also wounded when Hizbollah guerrillas attacked the nearby border village of Maroun al-Ras, seized by the Israelis in heavy fighting last week, medics said.

In Rome, the ministers agreed a UN-mandated international force was needed to secure the Israel-Lebanon border.

They urged Israel to exercise "utmost restraint" in its assault on Lebanon, launched after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Offensive

In the Gaza Strip, scene of another Israeli offensive, Israeli forces killed 19 Palestinians, including nine militants, three children and a disabled man, during fighting.

Israel has killed 137 Palestinians in a month-long campaign to recover a captured soldier and stop rocket fire from Gaza.

Its war against Hizbollah has killed at least 420 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians. At least 50 Israelis have also died.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Iran and Syria, both allies of Hizbollah, should be included in efforts to halt the war. Rice blames Tehran and Damascus for stoking the conflict.

Israel, Iran and Syria were not invited to the Rome talks, drawing a complaint from Syria's UN ambassador, who said the conference should have discussed "Israeli occupation" rather than a new force for Lebanon.

"How come the fate of our area is decided 3000km away from it?" Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said. "I am talking about the conference of Rome where Syria was not there, where many other countries concerned were not there."

Hizbollah vowed not to accept "humiliating" truce terms and to take its rocket strikes deeper into Israel.

Hours later, more than 125 missiles hit the port of Haifa and other parts of northern Israel, wounding dozens of people.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert strove to limit diplomatic damage from the killing of four UN observers in an air strike on their post in south Lebanon on Tuesday, telling Annan he was sorry at the deaths, but expressing shock at the UN chief's suggestion the attack was deliberate.

An angry China asked the UN Security Council on Wednesday to condemn the air raid, in which a Chinese observer was killed. The others were from Finland, Austria and Canada.

An Irish army officer in south Lebanon had warned Israel six times that air strikes threatened the lives of UN observers before Tuesday's deaths, Ireland's Foreign Ministry said.

UN officials said the raid flattened the building housing the observers. Initial UN assessments suggested Israel had used precision-guided munitions, diplomats in Jerusalem said.

- REUTERS

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