World steps up diplomacy to end fighting

DAMASCUS (AP) — The United Nations and Britain urged the deployment of peacekeepers in Lebanon and Russia offered troops for any such force, as the UN dispatched an envoy to Israel on Monday in the first big swirl of diplomatic efforts to stem the Mideast violence.

Iran called for a ceasefire and exchange of prisoners, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scaled back his demands, saying soldiers must be released and Hizbollah pull back from the border for fighting to halt. An aide also indicated the prime minister was ready to compromise on the question of dismantling the Islamic group, but said he might oppose the idea of international forces.

The stepped-up diplomacy was the first real movement towards an end to the Israeli-Hizbollah fighting that broke out Wednesday in Lebanon. US President George W. Bush and others have come under criticism for taking little seeming action while the Islamic group fired rockets at northern Israel and the Israelis retaliated with air strikes.

But on Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined UN Secretary  General Kofi Annan in calling for the deployment of international forces to stop Hizbollah from using southern Lebanon as a launching ground.

“The only way we’re going to get a cessation of hostilities is if we have the deployment of an international force into that area, that can stop the bombardment over into Israel, and therefore give Israel a reason to stop its attacks on Hizbollah,” Blair said.

The US ambassador to the UN said, however, that the Security Council should delay any action on the escalating conflict until the UN envoy, Vijay Nambiar, now in the Mideast returns to New York later this week.

Nambiar expressed optimism about efforts to resolve the crisis and said he would go to Israel shortly with “concrete ideas” on ending the fighting.

“We have made some promising first efforts on the way forward,” Nambiar, Annan’s special political adviser, told reporters in Beirut. He called time an important factor.

UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari said Nambiar had “very useful discussions” with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament Nabih Berri, a close ally of Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

“They have agreed on some specifics, and this is going to be carried to Israel, and they will probably go back to Lebanon if they are a promising signal. I wouldn’t like to go further on that,” Gambari said. Nambiar arrived in Israel late Monday.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the highest-level visitor to Lebanon since the crisis began last week, also urged Hizbollah and Israel to join in a ceasefire and proposed dispatching international monitors in southern Lebanon.

But he stressed an end to the worst Lebanese-Israeli fighting in 24 years must include the release of the two Israeli soldiers captured last week.

Blair said assembling an international peacekeeping force could take time. He said Britain would work with other countries although he called British forces, which are part of US-led efforts in Iraq, “somewhat stretched.” Russian President Vladimir Putin said his nation would contribute troops to a UN peacekeeping force. The European Union said it also was considering deploying peacekeepers in Lebanon.

Asked about the comments on an international force, White House national security spokesman Frederick Jones said: “We’re open to the possibility of that force being necessary.” Throughout the conflict, Bush has defended Israel and said he would not demand a ceasefire, despite accusations by other world leaders that the Israelis have gone too far.

Bush, not realising his remarks were being picked up by a microphone, candidly expressed his frustration with Hizbollah, a group backed by Iran and Syria, on the margins of the Group of Eight summit in Russia.

“See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over,” Bush told Blair.

Bush also suggested that Annan call Syrian President Bashar Assad to “make something happen.” The White House said it had nothing to announce about a trip to the Middle East by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, even though Bush was overheard telling Blair: “She’s going. I think Condi’s going to go pretty soon.” A senior Arab diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid influencing the sensitive negotiations, cautioned against being overly optimistic despite the swirl of activity. “It’s up to the Israelis now to make up their mind,” he said.

Olmert has expressed some opposition to the idea of sending international forces to Lebanon to help end bloodshed in the region, Israeli senior officials said.

The prime minister’s chief spokesman, Asaf Shariv, said earlier Monday that Israel would insist on the soldiers’ release and a pullback by Hizbollah, but not press its original demands that Hizbollah be entirely dismantled.

“Bring them [the soldiers] back and put the Hizbollah outside of the south of Lebanon and we are done, we are not shooting one bomb, one bullet,” Shariv said.

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