ROME (Reuters) – Crisis talks on Lebanon began on Wednesday with pressure growing for a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas after four U.N. observers were killed, but diplomats played down the chance of a quick deal.
Senior diplomats from the United States, Middle East and Europe met in Rome to discuss ways to end the 15-day-old conflict that has killed 418 people in Lebanon and 42 Israelis.
Arab leaders were expected to demand an urgent peace deal, but Washington and the European Union believe the conditions are not yet right for a lasting ceasefire.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was co-chairing the conference with Italy. It was being watched by oil markets nervous about the conflict spreading to oil producers.
Rice met Italian counterpart Massimo D’Alema before talks began to discuss the agenda.
An aide to D’Alema summarized the agenda: “A pause in hostilities for humanitarian assistance, a humanitarian corridor, the prospects for a stabilization force and also talk of how and when to call a donors’ conference.”
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi hopes the talks might produce a ceasefire. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East David Welch agreed this was a matter of “some urgency”.
“But the object here is to create conditions for a sustainable ceasefire,” Welch said en route to Rome
Israel was not invited to the conference, nor were Hizbollah or its ally Syria.
‘TERRIBLE HUMANITARIAN PROBLEMS’
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said as she went into the meeting that it must help resolve “the terrible humanitarian problems in Lebanon” and come up with a plan “to enable us to bring a durable end to hostilities”.
“We want to make sure we are shoring up and strengthening the government of Lebanon rather than weakening it,” she said.
Delegates included Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, ministers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt and European powers Germany, France and Britain, plus Russia and Turkey and the United Nations, EU and World Bank.
One Hizbollah leader said the guerrillas, who have talked of attacking deeper into Israel rather than disarming — a likely condition for any peace deal — were “tired” of talks.
“We are tired of conferences that lead nowhere. We have seen too many of them: Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, Wye Plantation and others,” Hizbollah’s Hussein Haji Hassan told an Italian paper.
“The way ahead is simple and does not involve Rome. First Israel must cease its unjustified attacks on Lebanon. We need an immediate ceasefire,” he told Corriere della Sera.
Hizbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers sparked the Israel bombings, one of which killed four U.N. observers on Tuesday in what Annan called an “apparently deliberate” attack — a charge dismissed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Israel blames Hizbollah for starting the fighting and has said it will press on with its offensive.
Italian diplomats played down expectations for the meeting, despite Prodi’s talk of a ceasefire. A foreign ministry spokesman said no written declaration was expected.
“It is a matter of talking and making proposals to resolve the crisis that can then be taken up elsewhere,” he said.