Rome meeting to focus on Israel-Lebanon truce

/ Source: The Associated Press

The top U.N. envoy on Lebanon-Syria issues says U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called a high-level international conference next week to try to reach agreement on the political underpinnings of a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

The conference in Rome on Wednesday will bring together key players from the Mideast and the international community that have been involved in rebuilding Lebanon after its long civil war, Terje Roed-Larsen said in an interview Friday.

"There is now a feeling of emergency, but also a state of energizing the diplomatic process in order to make these underpinnings as robust as possible," he said.

Roed-Larsen is part of a three-member U.N. team that just returned from the region and briefed Rice Friday morning before she returned to Washington and announced that she would meet with "the Lebanon core group" in Rome on a Mideast trip that will also take her to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The group comprises countries and organizations that want to help Lebanon's reconstruction and economic, political and social reforms. Its members are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the World Bank, the European Union, France, Russia, Britain, the United States and Italy.

The group met at the ministerial level for the first time in the margins of the U.N. General Assembly's ministerial meeting last September. Ever since, they have met at ambassadorial level in Lebanon.

‘Key contact group’
Rice said the core group's members "form a key contact group that can help the Lebanese government to address the political, economic and security challenges that it faces." She said she expects Lebanon to send a delegation to the Rome meeting.

Roed-Larsen, who will be accompanying Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the meeting in Rome on Wednesday, said he expects foreign ministers to attend.

"There is now a broad international agreement that in order to reach a cease-fire you have to produce the necessary underpinnings," he said. "Sadly, it's unrealistic to reach a cease-fire simply though calls for a cease-fire. You have to produce the necessary tools in order to get the parties to reach a cessation of hostilities."

Roed-Larsen said he believes "this is precisely now the focus of the U.S. administration" and the U.N. Security Council.

"This is why secretary Rice has called for an international conference in Rome with some of the key players in the region and the international community in order to discuss and hopefully reach an agreement on what such political underpinnings of a cease-fire might be," he said.

A consensus on the key elements "can lead to an action plan which can put an end to the bloodshed and suffering in Israel and in Lebanon," Roed-Larsen said.

Annan said in an interview Friday night on CNN's "Larry King Live" that the conference will discuss "possible solutions to the crisis."

He again called for an immediate cessation of hostilities or humanitarian truce and warned that if Israeli ground forces go into Lebanon it would be "a very serious escalation" of the conflict.

Annan urged Israel to work with the international community to get a cease-fire, and said Syria and Iran, which both support Hezbollah, also "have to be part of the solution." But he admitted a quick end to the conflict will be difficult because Israel wants "to weaken or degrade or disarm Hezbollah" and Hezbollah has said it is "prepared to continue this action indefinitely."

The secretary-general told the Security Council on Thursday that the U.N. mission he sent to the Middle East suggested elements which he believes must form the political basis of any lasting cease-fire. The leaders of Lebanon and Israel have already been consulted on the elements by the U.N. team.

They include the handover and repatriation of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on July 12 which triggered the fighting, an expanded peacekeeping force on the Lebanese side of the U.N.-drawn boundary with Israel known as the Blue Line to stabilize the situation, and Lebanese and Israeli respect for the line. The Lebanese government must also extend its control over southern Lebanon, which is now largely in the hands of Hezbollah, and disarm the militia, as called for in a September 2004 Security Council resolution, Annan said.

Rice told reporters in Washington that "there is a political framework and a political solution that could both stop the violence and leave Lebanon and the region in a much better place so that this doesn't happen again. And I think that's what we have to pursue."

First the violence must end, she said, and that enable the Lebanese government to deploy its troops in the south, perhaps with significant international assistance.

Whether a U.N. force or a multinational force is deployed, Rice said "I think everybody understands that it has to be a force robust enough to do the job" _ and make sure that southern Lebanon isn't used again as a platform by Hezbollah to attack Israel.