JERUSALEM—The broad outlines of a diplomatic strategy to end Israel-Hezbollah fighting emerged on Thursday with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for a cease-fire and the United States announcing that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the Middle East as early as next week.
Israel, however, said it wouldn't stop fighting until it had achieved its military goals. Israeli troops on Thursday were sent back into southern Lebanon, where four died in skirmishes with Hezbollah guerrillas. Israeli air raids again rained devastation on Beirut's southern suburbs, and hundreds of thousands of refugees scrambled to escape the fighting.
But the number of Hezbollah rockets hitting Israel dropped to 50, one of the lowest totals in nine days of war. There were no reports of casualties.
In Beirut, the minister of social affairs became the first senior Lebanese official to blame Syria and Iran publicly for the abduction of two Israeli soldiers that touched off the fighting. But the comments of Nayla Moawad, a Maronite Christian whose husband, Lebanese President Rene Moawad, was killed in the country's long civil war, weren't echoed by other officials.
International officials warned of a growing humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who've fled the fighting face shortages of food, water and housing.
The U.S. military evacuation of thousands of U.S. citizens continued Thursday, with U.S. officials announcing that nearly 3,000 people had been transported to Cyprus. Cyprus' government pleaded for international assistance to cope with the influx of thousands fleeing Lebanon.
A coalition of U.S. lawmakers will head to Israel this weekend to assess the situation, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said in a statement late Thursday. Reps. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.; Jane Harman, D-Calif.; Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.; and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., all members of the House Intelligence Committee, will meet with American, Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss efforts to end the fighting.
Rice and President Bush so far have refused to intervene to stop the fighting, allowing Israel to continue a military offensive that's aimed at dislodging Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and eliminating it as a threat.
Speaking in New York, Annan said a cease-fire wouldn't just save lives and provide aid agencies a chance to help displaced people, but it would also "give diplomacy a chance to work out a practical package of actions that would provide a lasting solution to the current crisis."
Annan, who was scheduled to confer with Rice Thursday evening, said that a U.N. team sent to the region proposed several steps to end the crisis.
The steps include an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon that would replace the current force, known by the acronym UNIFIL; Lebanon's agreement to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the dismantling of militias such as Hezbollah; urgent international funding for Lebanon's reconstruction; and an international conference that would, among other steps, finally delineate Lebanon's disputed borders.
Rice was scheduled to meet with the U.N. team on Friday.
"This is going to be very large. It's not just going to be a cease-fire," said a Middle East diplomat who confirmed elements of the package on condition of anonymity.
Rooting out Hezbollah from southern Lebanon could prove difficult, however.
Annan noted in his report that while Israel's military operations might be hurting the group's military capabilities, "they are doing little or nothing to decrease popular support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or the region, but are doing a great deal to weaken the government of Lebanon."
In Israel, officials showed little enthusiasm for a cease-fire and suggested that sending in ground troops might be necessary.
"The air attacks are not enough to destroy the Hezbollah infrastructure," said Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, the head of Israel's infantry. "Hezbollah has been planning this for years."
Earlier, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Amir Peretz made the same point, saying that "under no circumstances" would Israel end its operations without assurances that Hezbollah had been dismantled.
"If we need to conduct an operation in order to complete the mission, Hezbollah shouldn't think we will refrain from any operation in order to change the situation," he said. "We have no intention of re-conquering Lebanon, but there is one thing you can write down: Hezbollah flags will not fly on the border with Israel."
Israeli news reports have said several hundred Israeli soldiers are operating in southern Lebanon, but Israeli military officials said that the ground operations have been relatively quick incursions, with all troops returning to Israel afterward.
On Thursday, Israeli ground forces targeted Hezbollah rocket-launch pads and other tactical targets, encountering Hezbollah gunmen in often close-quarters fighting that left four Israeli soldiers dead. Israeli military sources would confirm only one Hezbollah death.
Israeli bombing also continued throughout Lebanon. Israeli jets dropped 23 tons of explosives on what Israeli officials said was a Hezbollah bunker in southern Beirut but Hezbollah officials said was a mosque under construction. A McClatchy Newspapers reporter who viewed the site said it was impossible to know what had been there; the explosives left only a huge hole filled with electrical wires and debris.
Bombing also hit southern Lebanon as international aid officials expressed concern about their inability to assist residents there.
Roland Benjamin Huguenin, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem, said getting aid to refugees was virtually impossible because of the fighting and the level of destruction.
"The problem is that the roads and bridges in southern Lebanon are so badly damaged that it's very, very difficult to get to these people," he said, "so difficult that we can't say that we have an accurate count of how many people are in need."
He said that while they know which villages have been hit by the bombing campaign, they have no way of knowing how many residents escaped.
The 50 Hezbollah rockets fired Thursday into Israel were a sharp decrease from 115 the day before. In all, Hezbollah is believed to have fired 775 rockets since the fighting began a week ago Wednesday.
There were no reported deaths from rocket fire in Israel on Thursday, but an Israeli tank shell reportedly killed four Palestinian militants and two civilians in Gaza on Israel's southern border. Three militant fighters reportedly were killed in the West Bank town of Nablus during an Israeli raid.
Israeli military officials said the Nablus attack was aimed at senior leaders, including "wanted terrorists under the control of Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon." They spoke on the condition of anonymity because Israel's intelligence on terrorists is classified.
The same military officials said that Israel now believes that Hezbollah recently has intensified efforts to launch suicide attacks from Gaza and the West Bank.
In Beirut, few politicians seemed eager to echo Moawad's comments about Syrian and Iranian involvement in Hezbollah's decision to cross the border and capture two Israeli soldiers. Three other soldiers were killed in the initial attack, and five Israelis died in subsequent fighting.
"The decision for this operation was not taken in Lebanon," Moawad said at a daily news briefing for reporters organized by the Lebanese government. "We are convinced it was taken in Damascus, with Iranian coordination."
But calls to 12 other Lebanese officials found only one willing to comment. Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a Christian and the son of a former president and the nephew of another, said it was too early to point fingers when Lebanon is suffering a humanitarian disaster. "Talking about this issue is useless now and could incite disputes," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S Embassy in Cyprus rented a massive exhibition hall at Cyprus' state fairgrounds where American evacuees waited for flights to the United States, biding the time by resting on folding beds or watching movies.
Two ships scheduled to reach the Mediterranean island Friday morning were carrying about 2,000 passengers. About 1,000 Americans were evacuated Thursday, most of whom quickly traveled on to the United States.
But the crush of people fleeing Lebanon clearly was pushing Cyprus to the breaking point. Hotels were booked solid, accommodating not only evacuees but also an influx of humanitarian workers, some of whom were sleeping in shifts in overcrowded rooms.
(Schofield reported from Jerusalem, Strobel from Washington. Contributing to this report were Hannah Allam and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Nada Raad from Beirut, Shashank Bengali from Larnaca, Cyprus, and Drew Brown from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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