Fighting rages as peace talks open

Fierce fighting raged in Lebanon on Wednesday as an international conference opened in Rome on how to end Israel’s 15-day-old war with Hizbollah guerrillas.

Al Jazeera television said nine Israeli soldiers had been killed during clashes with Hizbollah guerrillas in a south Lebanese village. Israeli medics reported heavy casualties.

The fighting was around Bint Jbeil, which Israel says is a Hizbollah stronghold, four km (2.5 miles) inside Lebanon.

The battles occurred as foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, met in Rome to discuss how to end the war and bring humanitarian aid to Lebanon.

The one-day meeting, co-chaired by Italy and the United States, was to consider the conditions for a ceasefire, the dispatch of an international peacekeeping force to southern Lebanon and the opening of safe corridors for aid.

France said it will present to the conference the “first outlines” of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon followed by negotiations.

“Once there is a political agreement, then a multinational force will be able to be mobilised. France could participate,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told France Info radio, adding that the force should have a U.N. mandate.

Hizbollah vowed not to accept any “humiliating” truce terms and to take its rocket strikes deeper into Israel. Hours later, more missiles hit Haifa, wounding several people, police said.

Israel and Syria, Hizbollah’s main ally along with Iran, have not been invited to the Rome conference.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier strove to limit diplomatic damage from the killing of four U.N. observers in an air strike in south Lebanon on Tuesday.

He told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of his “deep sorrow” at the deaths, but voiced shock at Annan’s suggestion the attack was deliberate. Olmert ordered an investigation.

Annan had demanded Israel probe the “apparently deliberate targeting” of the U.N. post in the village of Khiam on Tuesday.

China condemned the air raid, in which a Chinese observer was killed. The others were from Finland, Austria and Canada.


U.N. officials said the air strike flattened the building housing the observers. Lebanese security sources said three of the bodies had been dug out of the rubble.

“(This) attack on a long established and clearly marked U.N. post at Khiam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that U.N. positions would be spared Israeli fire,” Annan said in a statement.

The war has already killed 418 people in Lebanon and 42 Israelis. Israeli bombing has forced an estimated 750,000 to flee their homes. Many are still trapped in war zones.

The first U.N. aid convoy left Beirut for the southern port city of Tyre. The 10-truck convoy was carrying 90 tons of supplies, enough to feed 50,000 people for three months.

“This is a small convoy. This is a litmus test for the security controls in place,” Khaled Mansour, a U.N. spokesman, told Reuters as the convoy left Beirut port.

A Jordanian military plane landed at Beirut international airport to evacuate badly wounded people from among the 2,000 hurt in Lebanon so far. It was the first jet to land at the airport since Israeli planes bombed runways and forced it to close on July 13. Later air strikes hit fuel facilities.

Israel said on Tuesday it would let planes carrying relief supplies land in Beirut. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.

Lebanon and its Arab allies will plead at the Rome talks for a ceasefire now. Washington wants a “durable solution” first.

Israel, with apparent U.S. approval, has said it will press on with its offensive. It also said it plans to set up a “security strip” in Lebanon until international forces deploy.

Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose group ignited the war by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid, rejected U.S. truce terms and vowed, in a taped speech on television, to take the war deeper into Israel.

“Yes, the limit of our bombardment will not remain Haifa, regardless of the enemy’s response,” Nasrallah declared.

The latest Hizbollah rocket attack hit Haifa as U.N. aid chief Jan Egeland was visiting the northern coastal city. At least 11 rockets also landed in the town of Carmiel.

Israel has also been waging an offensive in Gaza since June 28 to recover a soldier seized by Palestinian militants. Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians, including a three-year-old child and wounded 30, on Wednesday, medics and witnesses said. Altogether 129 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive.

(Additional reporting by Beirut, Rome and Jerusalem bureaus)

© Reuters 2006