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(photo credit: AP)
The United Nations is bringing key Mideast players together Thursday for a series of meetings to make major decisions on the next steps to try to end the escalating hostilities between the IDF and Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrillas, a top UN official said Wednesday.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the three-member team he sent to the Mideast to try to defuse the crisis were returning to New York on Wednesday, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the European Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana were flying in on Thursday, the official said.
Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said Annan would brief the UN Security Council Thursday morning on the UN mission's talks in Lebanon and Israel and his own contacts with world leaders. The secretary-general will then host a private dinner for Rice and Solana, who will meet with the UN team and others either before dinner or Friday morning, he said.
Since fighting began eight days ago, the UN Security Council has taken no action, and Lebanon accused the United States on Saturday of blocking even a statement to the press calling for a cease-fire. The UN team went to Israel with "concrete ideas" from Lebanese leaders to end the fighting, but Israeli officials said their offensive could last several more weeks.
"We have to decide where we're going next with this because ... obviously the mission hasn't found easy answers in the region," Malloch Brown said, and Annan views Thursday's council debate and meeting with Rice and Solana as "major decision points in how we go forward."
"There is no doubt that the ability of the international community to influence these extremely dangerous events in the region will be enormously helped if everybody is as close to each other as possible in terms of the messages they're delivering to the leaders of the region," he said.
The goal of the talks, Malloch Brown said, will be to try "to get everybody on the same page about the facts of what's happening in this very confusing situation, but also, of course, to see to what extent there is a common international position."
At the moment, the Security Council remains divided over a cease-fire, with the US siding with Israel.
"The simple reflexive action of asking for a cease-fire is not something that's really appropriate in a situation like this," US Ambassador John Bolton told reporters Wednesday. "How do you get a cease-fire with a terrorist organization? I'm not sure anybody's ever done that before, and I'm not sure it's possible."
Bolton said the US objective is to strengthen the Lebanese government and Lebanese democracy and to ensure that a Security Council resolution adopted in September 2004 is implemented. It calls for the government to extend its control over southern Lebanon, which is now controlled by the Hizbullah, and disarm the guerrilla group and other militias which Bolton said now "operate as cancerous states within states."
But France, which circulated suggestions Tuesday night that could be included in a UN resolution on the conflict, wants a cease-fire as do all Arab states, Russia and Annan. French President Jacques Chirac has also asked for "a humanitarian truce."
"The UN thinks this should not continue, that it's enormously important to stop the violence, and allow this to be resolved by intense diplomatic negotiations," Malloch Brown said. "What there needs to be now is a cessation of hostilities" because the greatest brunt of the conflict is on innocent civilians.
The ideas for a possible resolution put forward by France's UN Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere include a cease-fire, condemnation of "extremist forces" that seek to destabilize the region, the possibility of a new international force, and the release of the abducted IDF soldiers.
France would also like to see the September 2004 resolution implemented. De La Sabliere, the current council president, said the aim of the suggestions was to generate reflection and discussion on a solution to the crisis which he warned "will not come overnight."
"We think the time has come now to start really to discuss what the council should do and could do to make a meaningful contribution to the solution of this crisis," he said.
Qatar's UN Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the only Arab member of the council, said unfortunately "the council is not in agreement to come up with a resolution," and has taken "no decision regarding the cease-fire or anything." But he also stressed the importance of forging council unity.
En route back to New York, the UN team stopped in Madrid to meet Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a former European Union Mideast envoy. Afterwards, Terje Roed-Larsen, Annan's adviser on Lebanon-Syria issues, called for a quick decision on whether to deploy a new international force.
"We're in a hurry. It has to happen fast," he said.
In a side issue, Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari confirmed that the Syrian government had made clear to the leader of the UN team, Annan's political adviser Vijay Nambiar, that he and UN Mideast envoy Alvaro de Soto were welcome in Damascus, but Roed-Larsen is not.
He said this was because Syria had expressed its view long ago that Roed-Larsen had overstepped his mandate in implementing the September 2004 resolution.
Malloch Brown said the UN team was supposed to stop in Damascus before it returned to New York, but Annan decided to skip Syria and have the team return to New York because Thursday's council briefing has become "a pretty major moment."
Therefore, he said, Annan did not have to make "a tough choice" of whether to send the mission without Roed-Larsen, but "no doubt, this is an issue we will have to face down the road."