July 24, 2006

Rice visits Beirut

By Sue Pleming

BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
flew unannounced to Beirut on Monday to seek a "sustainable"
ceasefire in Lebanon, where Hizbollah guerrillas were battling
an Israeli tank incursion in the south.

Rice met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora after arriving by
helicopter from Cyprus in a city pounded by Israeli air strikes
almost every day since the 13-day-old war began.

"Thank you for your courage and steadfastness," she told
Siniora, who has repeatedly pleaded for an immediate ceasefire.

There was no immediate word on the outcome of her meeting
with Siniora, which lasted more than two hours, longer than

On her way to the region, Rice said she wanted to create
conditions for a sustainable ceasefire in a war that has cost
377 dead in Lebanon and at least 37 Israeli lives in 13 days.

A U.S. official in Rice's party said she would announce aid
for Lebanon, where Israeli bombing has displaced half a million
people and wrecked installations worth an estimated $1 billion.

The government said 110,000 refugees were being housed in
642 schools and other temporary shelters across Lebanon.

"I am deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what
they are enduring," Rice told reporters before starting talks
with Shi'ite Muslim Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

"I am concerned about the humanitarian situation," she
said, without giving details of any American assistance.

Berri is a pro-Syrian politician who has liaised between
Siniora and Hizbollah leaders since the war erupted.

Hizbollah said it had shot down an Israeli helicopter and
hit five tanks, inflicting casualties in fierce battles that
erupted after Israeli forces pushed north from a border

Arab television channels said two Israeli soldiers had been
killed. Israel's army reported nine wounded. An Israeli
military source said a helicopter had crashed, but was not shot

The tank thrust toward Bint Jbeil, about 4 km (2.5 miles)
inside Lebanon, was one of several recent Israeli forays in
search of Hizbollah fighters and rocket-launchers.

Israel plans a sweep of Bint Jbeil, which army spokeswoman
Brigadier-General Miri Regev said had become a "center for
Hizbollah terrorists," adding: "We intend to clear out this
place to prevent the firing of Katyusha rockets at Israel."

The army plans to enter several other southern towns. "We
intend to go there to dismantle the terror infrastructure, kill
the terrorists and then of course leave," Regev said.

Israeli air raids killed at least seven people and wounded
50 in south Lebanon. Bombs also hit a Shi'ite area of Beirut.

Hizbollah rockets struck Haifa, Nahariya and the border
town of Shlomi, wounding at least four people.

Rockets have killed 17 Israelis since the start of the war,
launched after Hizbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a raid
across the border on July 12. Twenty soldiers have also died.


The United States, which blames Hizbollah and its allies in
Syria and Iran for the crisis, insists any ceasefire deal must
remove the threat to Israel posed by the Shi'ite group.

Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who wants to swap
the two soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinians in Israeli
jails, said Israel's assaults would not stop cross-border
rocket fire.

Israel, after initially dismissing the idea, now says it
would be willing for an international force to dislodge
Hizbollah from south Lebanon and take control of Lebanon's
border with Syria to stop the guerrillas re-arming.

But just as Hizbollah has fought Israeli attempts to drive
it from the south, it would surely resist military coercion by
any international force, assuming one could be assembled.

Several European Union nations said they were ready to
contribute to a U.N. peace force for Lebanon, but EU officials
said questions remained over how it could fulfil its mission.

Siniora has said only a broad political deal will work.

This should include a prisoner swap and an Israeli pullout
from the disputed Shebaa Farms area to create conditions in
which Hizbollah could disarm and the Lebanese army take over.

Rice is also set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before discussing the
crisis with European and Arab officials in Rome on Wednesday.

Israel's Lebanon offensive coincided with an Israeli
military push into the Gaza Strip to try to recover a soldier
captured by Palestinian militants on June 25.

Israeli shelling killed five people and wounded several
others in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian witnesses said.

Israel has killed 118 Palestinians in a nearly month-long
offensive in Gaza to free the soldier and halt rocket fire.

(Additional reporting by Jerusalem bureau)