Diplomats fail to reach agreement on cease-fire

Only Britain joins U.S. in opposition

July 27, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON AND PAUL RICHTER | TRACY WILKINSON AND PAUL RICHTER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME -- Diplomats from around the world, meeting here in emergency talks, failed to agree yesterday on an immediate cease-fire along the Lebanese-Israeli border after U.S. officials said the time and the conditions were not right.

A day after Israel's killing of four United Nations peacekeepers in an airstrike Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held firm to the demand that any truce be part of a broader political agreement that disables Hezbollah militants.

She resisted entreaties from nearly all of her European and Arab counterparts, and from Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. All of them argued for an immediate cease-fire.

"The more we delay the cease-fire, the more we are going to witness more [people] being killed, more destruction and more aggression against civilians," Siniora said at a news conference after the meeting. "Our country is being cut to pieces. We are being brought to our knees. That is what is happening."

Earlier, behind closed doors at the meeting at the Italian Foreign Ministry, Siniora said, "Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood?"

Rice and the British representatives stood virtually alone in opposing an immediate cease-fire, participants in the talks said. Russia, Italy, France, the United Nations and all of the Arab delegates argued vociferously for a truce.

The meeting continued for an extra hour and a half as the two camps haggled over the word immediate, said a participant who briefed reporters.

The eventual statement from the diplomats expressed their "determination to work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a cease-fire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities. That cease-fire must be lasting, permanent and sustainable."

Despite the absence of a breakthrough, several leaders said groundwork was laid that could lead to a solution to fighting that has killed hundreds.

The statement was read by Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, representing the host nation. He was flanked by Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Sinioria. All were grim-faced as they emerged from the meeting, then presided over a brief news conference.

The foreign ministers also agreed to work to speed humanitarian aid to Lebanon, where an estimated 800,000 people have been displaced by fighting and Israeli bombing. Delegates welcomed Israel's announcement that it would open land corridors and the Beirut airport for the shipment and delivery of relief.

The final statement also called for an international force to be "urgently authorized" under a U.N. mandate to assist the Lebanese army in dismantling militias, including Hezbollah, and in extending its control over all Lebanese territory.

Several countries, including Italy and Turkey, have said they would be willing to contribute troops to such a force, and French officials said yesterday that they, too, would be interested now that the command would be placed under the United Nations instead of NATO. Spain said it would consider providing troops under a U.N. mandate.

After the meeting, Rice, speaking to reporters accompanying her on her plane as she left Rome, rejected the idea that the U.S. position was isolated. "A way forward got a big boost today in the consensus around the table," she said.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said after the meeting that he was disappointed that there was no call for an immediate cease-fire.

"We had a long discussion with Ms. Rice," he said. "She proposed working toward an immediate cessation of hostilities. We wanted to immediately cease the hostilities. The U.S. view prevailed."

D'Alema noted that Israel and Hezbollah patrons Syria and Iran were not invited to the meeting.

British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said she thought there could be progress in "days, not weeks."

Israeli officials said yesterday that they were glad they were not being told to halt their assault on Lebanon. Hezbollah officials said they refuse to enter into any debate over their role without a cease-fire.

Tracy Wilkinson and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.

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