JERUSALEM—International diplomats swung into action Monday on the increasingly deadly face-off between Israel and Hezbollah as Israeli air attacks claimed at least 40 more lives in Lebanon and Hezbollah missiles wounded 11 in Israel.
Israel acknowledged for the first time that only diplomacy would bring a long-term solution to the conflict, and Lebanon's prime minister pleaded for a cease-fire. But Israel rebuffed a proposal to deploy United Nations peacekeepers along its border with Lebanon and stuck to its refusal to release prisoners in exchange for the return of two Israeli soldiers captured last week by Hezbollah.
"Time is of the essence," said U.N. Undersecretary-General Vijay Nambiar, head of a U.N. team that was shuttling between Beirut and Jerusalem. "Creative solutions have to be found in order to prevent a broadening and deepening of the conflict."
After days of saying it wouldn't intervene in the conflict, the Bush administration also began showing an interest in brokering an end to the fighting. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to travel to the Middle East to mediate.
But McCormack said details of the trip had to be worked out, and Rice had just returned to the United States from Russia, where she'd been attending the G-8 summit.
Iran and Russia also pressed for diplomatic solutions, with Iran calling for a cease-fire and a prisoner exchange and Russia offering to contribute troops to a peacekeeping force.
Meanwhile, the United States said it would begin evacuating those Americans wishing to leave Lebanon.
The civilian toll continued to climb. Lebanese officials said more than 40 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Monday, including 10 on a bridge in southern Lebanon. Human Rights Watch called for Israel to investigate the deaths of at least 16 civilians killed by an Israeli attack over the weekend as they tried to flee southern Lebanon.
Israeli jets again hit Beirut's airport, blowing up the last two oil depots and creating another intense fireball. Israel said it also hit a Hezbollah vehicle carrying long-range missiles that could have hit deep inside Israel.
Hezbollah rockets once again hit Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, where 11 people were injured in strikes that also destroyed an apartment building.
All together, more than 200 people in Lebanon and 24 in Israel have died in the fighting, including eight Israelis killed Sunday when a Hezbollah rocket struck a train maintenance area in Haifa.
In a candid moment of frustration captured by an open microphone, President Bush lashed out at Hezbollah and expressed frustration with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan for not prodding Syrian President Bashar Assad, one of the Lebanese militant group's main backers.
"I feel like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen," Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a lunch at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
"See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s--- and it's over," said the president.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also singled out Syria for prolonging the crisis by not stopping Hezbollah from firing rockets into northern Israel and not trying to persuade the group to free two Israeli soldiers captured in a cross-border raid last Wednesday.
In a speech carried live in Israel, Olmert denounced Hezbollah as "subcontractors for the axis of evil that runs from Tehran to Damascus" and said his nation was prepared for a long fight.
"We are not looking for war or conflict," Olmert told the Israeli parliament. "But when necessary we will not shy away from them."
In his speech, Olmert outlined his demands to end the crisis: Release of the two Israeli soldiers; expulsion of Hezbollah from the southern Lebanese border where militants are firing rockets into Israel; deployment of Lebanese troops in the area; and full disarmament of Hezbollah under unfulfilled U.N. resolutions.
"We are trying to neutralize their ability to rain terror on us," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "Having said that, we understand that the long-term solution is not military, but diplomatic."
Regev suggested that Israel's military campaign had succeeded in laying the groundwork for peace talks by targeting Hezbollah and weakening its ties to Syria and Iran.
"If you have more energetic support behind the Lebanese government, that is a recipe for an improved reality," said Regev.
U.N. official Nambiar, conferring with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Monday, called his meeting "a promising first start" but stressed that "much diplomatic work needs to be done before we arrive at any grounds for optimism."
Nambiar declined to discuss what idea he'll present to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni when they meet on Tuesday. It wasn't clear whether he'd met with Hezbollah representatives.
Israel already has dismissed one idea proposed by Annan and Blair for the creation of an international force to be sent to the Israel-Lebanon border.
"We've got one force that has been quite a failure and that's UNIFIL," said Regev, referring to the 2,000-strong United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon deployed along the border.
Israel has demanded that Lebanon dispatch its troops to the border to rein in Hezbollah, a proposal that most analysts believe the weak Saniora coalition couldn't achieve.
Saniora again appealed for Israel to halt its punishing bombardment of Lebanon, which, in addition to killing scores, has created a growing refugee crisis. Thousands of Lebanese residents are heeding Israel's warning and are fleeing southern Lebanon.
Villages near the border with Israel were almost empty Monday, with officials estimating that 36,000 refugees have fled. Thousands more have left Beirut to shelter in villages and towns in northern Lebanon.
(Contributing were McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Nada Raad in Beirut.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060717 MIDEAST pm, 20060717 MIDEAST military, 20060717 MIDEAST UN
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