Israel rules out rapid truce as warplanes bomb Beirut

BEIRUT (AFP) — Israeli warplanes blasted Beirut Tuesday and troops battled Hizbollah fighters as Israel effectively ruled out any chance of a rapid ceasefire to end the two-week-old Lebanon conflict, and warned it could set up its own border buffer zone.

The bombing on the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital, a Hizbollah stronghold, ended a 24-hour lull that coincided with a lightning visit to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

With no end in sight to warfare that has already claimed at least 390 lives in Lebanon alone, Defence Minister Amir Peretz warned Israel could establish its own security zone in southern Lebanon if multinational troops were not deployed.

In the latest bloodshed, an entire family of seven was killed when an Israeli missile slammed into their home in southern Lebanon while troops moved into a key border town where Hizbollah has a military headquarters.

“Israel is determined to carry on the fight against Hizbollah,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at a press conference with Rice. “We are not fighting the Lebanese government or the Lebanese people. We are fighting against Hizbollah.” Rice, who left the region for Rome to attend an international meeting on the crisis, said it was “time for a new Middle East” and underlined the US stance that an immediate ceasefire would only put off a long-term settlement.

“A durable solution will be one that strengthens the forces of peace and democracy in the region,” she said.

On a surprise visit to Lebanon Monday, Rice said she was “deeply concerned” about the plight of civilians, who have been forced to flee their homes in their hundreds of thousands and make up the bulk of the dead.

The United States, Israel’s top ally which has come under fire for failing to act quickly to end the offensive, delivered a first shipment of aid under a $30 million package.

US President George W. Bush said he saw no contradiction in sending assistance in the face of Israeli strikes while at the same time speeding arms deliveries to Israel.

Rice also met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who demanded a ceasefire to end Israel’s similarly aggressive offensive on the Gaza Strip, where 116 people have been killed in an operation to free a captured soldier and halt rocket attacks.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh railed against the US view of a new Middle East, saying it was one that began with “destroying Lebanon” and killing the maximum number of Palestinians.

On a visit to the Gaza Strip’s main power plant which was bombed by Israel, leaving many of its 1.4 million residents without power, UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland said it was a “clear” example of excessive force.

Human Rights Watch accused Israel of using cluster bombs in Lebanon and demanded the Jewish state immediately halt the practice.

On her trip to Beirut, Rice reportedly outlined plans for a ceasefire that would involve creating an internationally patrolled buffer zone in southern Lebanon for 60 to 90 days and a Hizbollah withdrawal from the border area.

Washington is under pressure from European and Arab allies to try to bring an end to the crisis amid charges it is dragging its feet to allow Israel time to attempt to wipe out the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbollah, which set off the conflict after seizing two soldiers on July 12.

Amid fears the conflict could spiral, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned of a “storm” brewing in the Middle East that would “turn against the enemies of humanity and strike violently”.

Saudi Arabia also issued an ominous warning of a regional Middle East war, as King Abdullah gave Lebanon’s central bank $1 billion to shore up its currency and $500 million in aid to help rebuild the country, along with $250 million to the Palestinians.

Israel is struggling to knock out Hizbollah despite its vastly superior military might.

A 15-year-old Arab Israeli girl was killed after a rocket hit her house in a village in northern Israel as more than a dozen rockets fired by Hizbollah from Lebanon pummelled the northern port of Haifa, wounding at least five people.

Two soldiers were also killed in fighting Monday, bringing to 42 the toll of Israelis killed — 24 servicemen and 18 civilians.

Israeli troops entered the border town of Bint Jbeil, a Hizbollah military stronghold, for the first time late Tuesday as they pushed deeper into Lebanese territory, a UN spokesman said.

“The Israeli army is in Bint Jbeil. Some sporadic fighting is ongoing inside and around the town,” Milos Strugar, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL), told AFP.

Eight Shiite fighters were killed in clashes with Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, Hizbollah and its ally the Amal movement said, without specifying the date or location of their deaths.

Israel has massed troops on the border and warned residents of southern Lebanon to flee but says it has no plans for an all-out invasion — for now.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington’s closest ally, called the conflict a “catastrophe” that was damaging fledgling democracy in Lebanon, a country that had gradually been rebuilding since the 1975-90 civil war and the end of Syria’s long military and political dominance last year.

He said he hoped a plan would be announced in the next few days to bring about an end to the worst cross-border conflict since Israel invaded its northern neighbour in 1982.

The offensive has left Lebanon virtually cut off from the world, made hundreds of thousands of people refugees in their own country and destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure.

Lebanese Premier Fuad Siniora, who has issued several desperate appeals for a ceasefire, accused Israel of trying to set his country back 50 years in his meeting with Rice.

Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah remained defiant, vowing that deeper incursions would not stop the rocket fire, and ruling out any efforts for a negotiated settlement unless it involved a prisoner swap.

Egeland, issuing an urgent appeal for $150 million for 800,000 people made homeless by Israel’s onslaught, criticised both Israel and Hizbollah for attacking civilians.

Israel said it will allow aid shipments to land in at Beirut airport, which has been repeatedly pounded by Israeli air strikes since the offensive began.

As the bombardments continued, foreign governments have laid on flotillas of ships to evacuate stranded nationals, mainly to the nearby resort island of Cyprus which has been battling to find temporary accommodation and flights for the estimated 70,000 evacuees at peak summer holiday season.

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