World condemns Israel as diplomacy fails again

Key quote "The more we delay the ceasefire, the more we are going to witness more being killed, more destruction and more aggression against the civilians in Lebanon." - Fuad Siniora, Lebanese prime minister

Story in full ISRAEL faced international condemnation yesterday for an air strike on a UN post in southern Lebanon that left four peacekeepers dead, as talks on the Middle East crisis broke up with no headway towards a ceasefire.

But Jerusalem attempted to fend off the rebukes following the deaths of the four UN observers, who came from Austria, Canada, Finland and China.

Beijing summoned the Israeli ambassador to demand an apology. "The Chinese side is deeply shocked and strongly condemns this," Liu Jianchao, a foreign ministry spokesman, said.

The Irish government summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest after its most senior soldier serving with the UN mission in Lebanon said he had called the Israeli military six times to warn of the proximity of their bombardment to the UN compound.

UN officials in New York and Lebanon also repeatedly protested to Israel that the patrol base was coming under fire in the hours before an Israeli bomb levelled it, Jane Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told the UN Security Council.

After contact with the base was lost, the UN force then won safe passage for two armoured personnel carriers to evacuate the position, Ms Lute said. They arrived at 9:30pm "and found the shelter collapsed and major damage to the rest of the position".

Despite negotiating safe passage, those vehicles also came under Israeli attack, she said.

Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, expressed sorrow over the attack but also voiced anger over an earlier statement by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, that it was "apparently deliberate". "We certainly did not intend that such a thing would happen and the army is checking itself to find out why it happened. But the claim that, possibly, it could be intentional, is baseless."

Asked whether the incident would discourage countries from sending troops to a new international force Israel would like deployed in southern Lebanon, Ms Livni said: "They would know that it wasn't deliberate. This is a war and these things can happen."

The conflict with Hezbollah has killed at least 423 people in Lebanon so far, mostly civilians. At least 51 Israelis have also died.

At the Middle East conference in Rome, the United States and Britain opposed a push for a quick ceasefire, saying any truce should ensure that Hezbollah is no longer a threat to Israel and should ensure a durable peace. Massimo D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, said that many participants in the meeting of US, European and Arab officials had appealed for an immediate and unconditional truce. But Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said there cannot be a return to the "status quo of political uncertainty and instability in Lebanon". She said any ceasefire must be "sustainable".

After a dramatic appeal from Fuad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, to stop the killing, the officials said they had agreed on the need to deploy an international force under the aegis of the UN in southern Lebanon.

Mr Siniora said: "Is the value of human rights in Lebanon less than that of citizens elsewhere? Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood?

"The more we delay the ceasefire, the more we are going to witness more being killed, more destruction and more aggression against the civilians in Lebanon."

Mr Annan said the solution should involve Iran and Syria and called for a multinational force to help Lebanon assert its authority and implement UN resolutions that would disarm Hezbollah.

In talks on the sidelines, diplomats said France, Italy and Spain all offered to participate in a UN-mandated peace force.

But last night, Major-General Udi Adam, in charge of the Israel's northern command, said the offensive was by no means over. "Given the progress over the last two weeks, I reckon it will continue for several more weeks."

Nine Israeli soldiers were killed and at least 22 wounded yesterday, by the army's count, in Bint Jbail, just north of the border - the largest toll for the army in a single day of the two week old war.

Fighting was still raging in the hilltop town last night - embarrassingly for the army since it had claimed to have gained control of Bint Jbail and that Hezbollah fighters were running away. "Tens" of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Bint Jbail over the last three days, Israeli military sources said.

Meanwhile an Israeli air strike hit a lorry carrying medical supplies donated to Lebanon by the United Arab Emirates. The Syrian driver was killed and two others wounded, security sources in Lebanon said.

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