Hizbollah defiant ahead of Rome meeting

Hizbollah’s leader vowed on Wednesday he would not accept any “humiliating” conditions for a ceasefire with Israel ahead of an international conference in Rome aimed at securing an end to the 15-day-old conflict.

In a televised address on Wednesday Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the conflict had entered a new phase and that Israeli incursions into southern Lebanon would not stop Hizbollah firing rockets into northern Israel.

On Wednesday Israeli Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, expressed his “deep sorrow” over the Israeli air strike which killed four United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon on Tuesday night, but said he was shocked that Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, had suggested the attack was deliberate.

Lebanon is expected to plead for an immediate ceasefire at the Rome conference on Wednesday, but the US will insist a lasting solution should be agreed first.

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, arrived in Italy on Tuesday night after visiting Beirut and Jerusalem. During her two-day mission she stressed that, while there was an urgent need to end the fighting, a ceasefire must result in an enduring peace.

“A durable solution will be one that strengthens the forces of peace and democracy in the region,” she said before talks with Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister.

Lebanese officials said there was now broad agreement that an international force should be deployed in south Lebanon to keep Hizbollah and its rockets away from the Lebanon-Israeli border. But they insisted ideas presented by Ms Rice in Beirut fell far short of what they required to wrest concessions from Hizbollah.

Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, told reporters in Brussels the Rome conference would produce more concrete results on humanitarian aid than it would on a peace deal and the formation of an international stabilisation force.

He said political and military aspects of the crisis “will require still probably more days to work on them…but the basic elements, I hope, will be clarified.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the Rome participants, on Tuesday stepped in with a transfer of $1bn to the Lebanese central bank to help support the battered economy. Earlier it gave $500m. King Abdullah warned of war in the Middle East if Israel continued attacking Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia is an important player in Lebanon, where it competes for influence with Iran, Hizbollah's backer.

The Israeli government, criticised for a military offensive that has targeted Lebanese infrastructure and forced at least 600,000 from their homes and for a blockade that has virtually cut Lebanon off from the outside world, said it would allow aid airlifts to help relieve a humanitarian crisis. Senior European diplomats said Wednesday's meeting in Rome would try to lay out a clear perspective on what came after a ceasefire. Elements could include implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559 that calls for Hizbollah to be disarmed and a decision that no arms be sold to Lebanon to parties other than the government.

Israel would be called upon to respect the UN's demarcation “blue line” and recognise that the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms – claimed by Lebanon but internationally regarded as Syrian – was an issue that had to be resolved.

These elements might come in a statement from Rome but would not amount to a call for an immediate ceasefire, the diplomats said.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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