U.S., Britain Hold Out on Cease-Fire

Times Staff Writers

Diplomats from around the world, meeting here in emergency talks, failed Wednesday to agree on an immediate cease-fire along the bloodied Lebanese-Israeli border after U.S. officials insisted that the time and conditions were not right.

In a conference partially overshadowed by Israel's killing of four U.N. peacekeepers in an airstrike Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held firm to the demand that any truce be part of a broader political agreement that sees Hezbollah militants disabled.

She resisted the entreaties of nearly all of her European and Arab counterparts, plus the impassioned pleas of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, all of whom argued for an immediate cease-fire.

"The more we delay the cease-fire," Siniora told a news conference, "the more we are going to witness more [people] being killed, more destruction and more aggression against civilians.... Our country is being cut to pieces, we are being brought to our knees, that is what is happening."

Earlier, behind the closed doors of the meeting at the Italian Foreign Ministry, Siniora said: "Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood?"

Rice and the British representatives stood virtually alone in opposing an immediate cease-fire, participants in the talks said. Russia, Italy, France, the United Nations and all Arab delegates made an especially vocal argument for a halt to hostilities.

The meeting dragged on an extra 90 minutes as the two camps haggled over the word "immediate," according to a participant who briefed reporters.

The eventual statement from the diplomats expressed their "determination to work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a cease-fire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities."

"That cease-fire must be lasting, permanent and sustainable," the statement said.

Despite the absence of a breakthrough in the half-day of talks, several leaders said important groundwork was laid that could eventually lead to a solution to fighting that has claimed hundreds of lives.

Rice said participants agreed on the need for an end to hostilities that "this time, will be sustainable" instead of violent "spasm followed by spasm."

The statement was read by Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, representing the host nation. He was flanked by Rice, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Siniora. All were grim as they emerged from the meeting and presided over a brief news conference.

The foreign ministers also agreed to work to speed humanitarian aid to Lebanon, where an estimated 800,000 people have been displaced by fighting and Israeli bombings. Delegates welcomed Israel's announcement that it would open land corridors and the Beirut airport for the shipment and delivery of relief.

The final statement also called for an international force to be "urgently authorized" under a U.N. mandate to assist the Lebanese army in dismantling militias, such as Hezbollah, and in extending its control over all Lebanese territory.

Several countries, including Italy and Turkey, have said they would be willing to contribute troops to such a force, and French officials said Wednesday that they too would be interested now that the command will be placed under the U.N. instead of NATO.

Rice, speaking to reporters accompanying her on a flight from Rome, rejected the idea that the American position was isolated. "A way forward got a big boost today in the consensus around the table," she said.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said after the meeting that he was disappointed there had been no call for an immediate cease-fire.

"We had a long discussion," Douste-Blazy said. "She proposed working toward an immediate cessation of hostilities, we wanted to immediately cease the hostilities. The U.S. view prevailed."

D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, noted that key players in the region -- Israel and Hezbollah patrons Syria and Iran -- were not invited.

Israeli officials said Wednesday that they were glad they were not being told to stop their assault on Lebanon. Hezbollah officials said they refused to enter into any debate over their role without a cease-fire.

Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin at the United Nations and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.

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