Plan folds for UN Lebanon peacekeepers

Key quote "We will stop the war when the [rocket] threat is removed ... our captive soldiers return home in peace, and you are able to live in safety and security" - Ehud Olmert, Israeli Prime Minister, in address to mayors of northern Israel

Story in full HOPES of a swift end to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah were dealt a serious blow yesterday as the United Nations indefinitely postponed a crucial meeting to plan a new peace-keeping force for Lebanon.

Israel's Security Cabinet was last night reported to have approved widening the ground offensive in Lebanon and be set to call up thousands more reservists, after Ehud Olmert, the Israeli premier, rejected a cease-fire until an international force is in place.

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Earlier Mr Olmert had told Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, it would be possible to implement a ceasefire in Lebanon immediately after an international stabilisation force is deployed.

But his comments came as UN officials decided a meeting to arrange such a force would not go ahead "until there is more political clarity" on the path ahead in the Middle East conflict.

And as Condoleezza Rice, the United States secretary of state, left the region yesterday, without calling for an immediate truce but predicting a ceasefire may be agreed later in the week, fighting between Israel and Hezbollah continued unabated.

Earlier Mr Olmert told Mr Blair in a phone conversation: "Immediately after the force's deployment, it will be possible to implement a ceasefire."

But in an address yesterday to mayors of northern Israeli towns, Mr Olmert had insisted there would be no ceasefire in the immediate future.

"The fighting continues. There is no ceasefire and there will not be any ceasefire in the coming days," he said to local officials, drawing sustained applause.

"We will stop the war when the [rocket] threat is removed ... our captive soldiers return home in peace, and you are able to live in safety and security."

And Amir Peretz, Israel's defence minister, warned of plans to step up the offensive until the deployment of an international force. "We cannot agree to an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, because then we will find ourselves in a similar situation in a few months," he said.

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Meanwhile Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last night told the Syrian military to "raise its readiness", pledging not to abandon support for Lebanese resistance against Israel.

Despite a pledge to suspend airstrikes for 48 hours, after an attack on the village of Qana killed at least 54 civilians, Israeli aircraft were in action over southern Lebanon yesterday.

Israel was obliged to apologise for the actions of its forces after three Lebanese soldiers were killed in an airstrike near the city of Tyre. The intended target was a Hezbollah leader.

An Israeli drone also fired on a pick-up vehicle at the main Lebanese crossing point into Syria, injuring four Lebanese customs men and the driver, and there were clashes between Israeli and Hezbollah ground forces in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah also continued to launch attacks, claiming to have used rockets to hit an Israeli warship off the coast of Tyre. It said the attack was the start of retaliation for Sunday's bombing of Qana. Israel denied the claim.

Guerrillas also hit an Israeli tank near Taibeh with an anti-tank missile, injuring three soldiers, and fired mortars at the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona.

Hopes for an end to the fighting appear to rest on a new UN Security Council resolution. Last Friday in the White House, Mr Blair said such a resolution could be approved by yesterday, but aides yesterday said work was continuing to achieve that goal.

Asked when a resolution might be tabled, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "As soon as possible. We are proceeding with the same urgency, greater urgency, as we were last week. The big point is not to put down a resolution for the sake of putting down a resolution."

The spokesman denied that the failure to table a resolution amounted to a slap in the face for Mr Blair.

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"It does not mean we are not making progress. We are," the spokesman said. "Simply saying 'We want the conflict over' is not going to bring it to an end."

He said Britain was working with the US and France to merge two draft resolutions, with Mr Blair also talking to Germany, Italy and Turkey about the possibility of those countries providing troops for the international peacekeeping force.

Leaving Jerusalem yesterday, Ms Rice said her focus would now be on persuading the UN Security Council to agree on a resolution for a ceasefire, as well as the creation of an international force for southern Lebanon.

"I am going to push very hard to have the UN Security Council resolution this week. I think it is time," the secretary of state said.

She had earlier said that negotiations with Lebanon and Israel had resulted in an "emerging consensus" for an urgent ceasefire and a lasting settlement to the crisis. "I am convinced we can achieve both this week," she said.

European Union officials were also optimistic that an emergency meeting of 25 EU foreign ministers could agree to push for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

The foreign ministers are due to meet today for talks to review the crisis, focusing also on how the EU can boost its aid to those affected by fighting in southern Lebanon and which nations can contribute troops to a possible UN peacekeeping force there.

In Helsinki, Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, whose country holds the EU presidency, said he was optimistic ministers would come up with "a clear, united EU plan of action which will include an earlier demand for the immediate cessation of hostilities, a political solution to Lebanon's problems and support for the UN secretary-general's attempts to collect an international force."

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Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said she hoped the UN Security Council would debate a resolution as early as tomorrow to bring an end to the conflict.

France has distributed a draft UN resolution on elements for a sustainable ceasefire and preparations for an international stabilisation force in southern Lebanon. But the draft said the force should be deployed only after Israel and Lebanon had "agreed in principle" on a framework for a permanent ceasefire.

In a new snub to Washington, Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, said yesterday that Iran was crucial to the stability to the Middle East and it was important to maintain contacts with Tehran.

The US blames Iran, which arms Hezbollah, for provoking the crisis, which erupted on 12 July when Hezbollah fighters crossed the Israeli border, killed eight soldiers and captured two others. Washington refuses to hold direct talks with Iran or Syria, Hezbollah's other main backer, over resolving the Lebanon conflict.

At least 577 people in Lebanon and 51 Israelis have been killed since the conflict erupted.

• The UN Security Council did agree yesterday to extend the existing UN peace-keeping mission in Lebanon by just one month, in order to ensure it would not conflict with what could be a larger international deployment.