US: Agreement to end fighting near

Rice urges cease-fire in near future, while Israel under fire for Kana attack.

crice 298 ap (photo credit: )
crice 298 ap
(photo credit: )
US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, reaffirmed the White House's position that Israel had the right to defend itself, and contended on Sunday that an agreement was near on ending the fighting that has ravaged Lebanon. Burns said the US was committed to securing a cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah, focusing on a multinational force in the region. "This is a very sad day. We are working toward that cease-fire," Burns said. "We are close to a political agreement between Israel and Lebanon to end this fighting." Yet he endorsed Israel's military objectives, saying "This has not been a good two and a half weeks for Hizbullah from a military point of view, and they've got to be worried about continued Israeli offensive operations." Earlier Sunday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was "deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life" in an attack on a village (Qana) in southern Lebanon, but did not call for an immediate cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah. "We want a cease-fire as soon as possible," she said. According to Rice, "We are also pushing for an urgent end to the current hostilities, but the views of the parties on how to achieve this are different." Lebanese officials said in Beirut that they asked Rice not to come (to a planned meeting) saying Beirut would only consider an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. "We all recognize this kind of warfare is extremely difficult," Rice commented on recent IDF attacks on Qana, noting it comes in areas where civilians live. "It unfortunately has awful consequences sometimes." "In the wake of the tragedy that the people and the government of Lebanon are dealing with today, I have decided to postpone my discussion in Beirut," Rice said. "In any case, my work today is here." Syria's foreign minister described the United States' refusal to support calls for an immediate cease-fire in the Mideast as "totally unacceptable", according to an interview published Sunday. Rather than urge a quick truce, Washington has pressed for a settlement that addresses enduring issues between Lebanon and Israel and disables Hizbullah, whose capture of two Israeli soldiers triggered the crisis. "This position is totally unacceptable," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was quoted as telling the weekly Der Spiegel. "At the moment, what is important is the saving of human lives, and not whether Israel or Hizbullah can realize their war aims." "If (Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice only wants to give Israel even more time to continue the destruction of Lebanon, then Washington will never be in a position to form a new Middle East as it has announced," he added. Joining international reactions to the IDF attack, Britain's foreign secretary described the event as a tragedy, and a setback for any peace deal. "We need to go back and pick up the pieces," Britain's Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Sky News in an interview Sunday, promising to continue working with all players in finding a solution to end the violence. Beckett, however, stopped short of calling for a cease-fire. "We have repeatedly called on the Israelis to act proportionately," Beckett said. Beckett's statement comes a day after her predecessor, Jack Straw, called Israel's actions "disproportionate." Also in response to the Qana attack, France on Sunday condemned the early morning Israeli raid, calling it an unjustifiable act and demanding an immediate cease-fire. President Jacques Chirac learned "with dismay of the act of violence that cost the lives of numerous innocent victims, notably woman and children, in Qana overnight," his office said in a statement. "France condemns this unjustifiable action, which shows more than ever the need to move toward an immediate cease-fire, without which other such dramas can only be repeated," it said. France, which has historic ties to Lebanon, has taken an active role in the effort to broker an end to the latest fighting in the Middle East. An additional country to denounce the attack on Qana was Jordan. King Abdullah II voiced his strongest criticism of his Israeli peace partner on Sunday, saying an attack on a southern Lebanese village was "criminal aggression" which targeted innocent civilians. Abdullah condemned "the ugly crime perpetrated by Israeli forces in Qana, which led to the killing of innocent civilians, including a large number of children and women," said a statement released by the king's press office. "This criminal aggression constitutes a blatant violation of the law and all international conventions," the king said. Abdullah repeated his call for an "immediate cease-fire." Iran called on Sunday for Israeli and American government officials to be prosecuted for what it described as war crimes in Lebanon. "Rice's visit (to Israel) came during the crime in Qana. I think Israeli officials and some American ones should be tried for these sorts of crimes," said Hamid Reza Asefi, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman. Abdullah's criticism underlined his frustration with the Lebanese-Israeli conflict, which moderate Arab governments fear may swell anti-US sentiments and broaden popular support for Hizbullah, risking their own standing among their subjects. The king, a strong US ally, quietly shares Washington's low opinion of Hizbullah, which is backed by Syria and Iran. He has not referred to Hizbullah since the start of fighting, but has voiced sympathy toward the Lebanese government and people. Jordan has had lukewarm relations with Syria since the kingdom signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 - a move which Syrians saw as weakening the Arab position against the Jewish state. Historically, Jordan has had bumpy relations with Iran too. It has often accused hard-liners in Tehran of seeking to spread their influence in the region, particularly in Iraq since US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.