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Hezbollah negotiator rejects peace proposal

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Beirut on Monday, offering a peace proposal with Lebanon's parliament speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah de facto negotiator. Berri later rejected the offer.
Lebanon's PM Siniora meets with US Secretary of State Rice in Beirut
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, right, meets with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials in Beirut on Monday.Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lebanon’s parliament speaker, Hezbollah’s de facto negotiator, rejected proposals brought by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, insisting a cease-fire must precede any talks about resolving Hezbollah’s presence in the south, an official close to the speaker said.

An official close to parliament speaker Nabih Berri said his talks with Rice failed to “reach an agreement because Rice insisted on one full package to end the fighting.”

The package included a cease-fire, simultaneous with the deployment of the Lebanese army and an international force in south Lebanon and the removal of Hezbollah weapons from a buffer zone extending 30 kilometers from the Israeli border, said the official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Berri rejected the package, proposing instead a two-phased plan. First would come a cease-fire and negotiations for a prisoner swap. Then an inter-Lebanese dialogue would work out a solution to the situation in south Lebanon, said the official.

Root cause of violence
The United States has insisted that no cease-fire can take place without dealing with what it calls the root cause of the violence — Hezbollah’s domination of the south along the Israeli border. Israel has rejected any halt in the fighting until two soldiers captured by the guerrillas are freed and the guerrillas are forced back.

The U.S. has said an international force might be necessary to help the Lebanese army move into the south. The central government has long refused to send the army in, insisting Hezbollah is a legitimate force and fearing that doing so would tear apart the country because of the guerrillas’s strength.

In her surprise visit to a battered Beirut, Rice met for about 45 minutes with Berri, an ally of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and considered friendly to Syria, which held political and military sway in Lebanon for decades before pulling out troops last year.

Berri is an influential figure in Lebanon’s complicated and factionalized political structure. Although the United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist group and has no dealings with it, Rice has met with Berri before. She could use her discussions with him to send an indirect message to Hezbollah, and to try applying pressure on Syria.

‘Backwards 50 years’
Rice also met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who told her that his government is looking to “put an end to the war that is being inflicted on Lebanon.” Bush administration officials have so far said that a cease-fire would be premature unless it addresses the threat Hezbollah fighters pose to Israel.

Rice’s talks with Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appeared to have been tense. Saniora told Rice that Israel’s bombardment was taking his country “backwards 50 years” and also called for a “swift cease-fire,” the prime minister’s office said.

In a sign of the differences between the United States and Lebanon, Saniora presented his own package for a permanent solution that contained long-standing Lebanese complaints that must be addressed before “Lebanese authority can be spread over all areas,” his office said.

It included a call for a “swift cease-fire.” Then would come an over-all solution guaranteeing the return of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, Israel’s withdrawal from the Chebaa Farms — a tiny border region that Lebanon claims — and the provision of minefields lain in south Lebanon during its 18-year occupation of the region.

Rice’s five-hour visit, which opened her trip to the Middle East, marked the first high-level U.S. diplomatic mission to the area since fighting erupted 13 days ago. Her stay was marked by tight security as motorcades whisked her through a pummeled capital city, passing cross streets that were blocked off by armed Lebanese security forces.

“Thank you for your courage and steadfastness,” Rice told Saniora after he greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks.

Rice arrived in Israel late Monday as darkness fell. She planned to meet with her Israeli counterpart, foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Blair: ‘Enormous diplomatic efforts’
In Washington, meanwhile, the White House announced that President Bush has ordered helicopters and ships to Lebanon to provide humanitarian aid. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said Rice discussed the assistance with Lebanese officials during her visit would announce the U.S. commitment later in the day as she continued on to Israel.

Rice and Saniora shook hands across a conference table on which there were two flags, one Lebanese and one American. Half a dozen other diplomats sat around the table.

Though south Beirut has been heavily targeted by Israel because it is home to Hezbollah leaders, there have been no bombings in the city since Sunday afternoon. Reporters with Rice heard no explosions during their brief stay.

Rice said President Bush wanted her to make Lebanon the first stop on her trip to the region, which has been embroiled in combat between Israel and Hezbollah since July 12. It was her third visit to Lebanon and was intended to make a show of support and concern for both the Saniora government and the Lebanese people, administration officials said.

Meanwhile, Britain hopes a peace plan will emerge for Lebanon within days that could lead to a cessation of hostilities, Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday.

“There have been as you might expect over the past few days enormous diplomatic efforts to get us to the point where I hope at some point within the next few days we can say very clearly what our plan is to bring about an immediate cessation of hostilities,” Blair said during a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in London.

Rice also met with members of the Lebanese parliament who have been staunch opponents of Syria’s influence in Lebanon. She was also scheduled to travel to Israel and to Rome, where she expected to meet with officials of European and moderate Arab governments.

Saniora and other Lebanese officials have been pushing Rice to call for an immediate cease-fire, something the Bush administration has resisted on grounds that it would not address the root causes of hostilities — Hezbollah’s domination of south Lebanon.

“We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal,” Rice told reporters traveling with her.

Stringent security
Rice’s mission took a dramatic turn with her surprise arrival here under stringent security. Under heavy guard, Rice flew by helicopter over the Mediterranean from Cyprus. Her motorcade sped through Beirut on the way to her meeting with Saniora.

R. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Monday that Rice will seek to use “our influence to see if there can be a cessation of hostilities.”

However, he told CBS’ “The Early Show,” any cease-fire would have to be long-lasting and involve a removal of Hezbollah rockets on the Israeli-Lebanese border and a return of Israeli soldiers taken captive.

En route to the region, Rice discussed the role of Syria, which the U.S. considers one of the world’s state sponsors of terror. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has blamed it, along with Iran, for stoking the recent violence in the Middle East by encouraging the Lebanese Hezbollah militia to attack northern Israel.

Rice pointed out that there are existing channels for talking with Syrian leaders about resolving the Middle East crisis when they’re ready to talk.

Diplomacy from all sides
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are working to entice Syria to end support for Hezbollah, a move that is central to resolving the conflict in Lebanon and unhitching Damascus from its alliance with Iran, the Shiite Muslim guerrillas’ other main backer.

Arab diplomats in Cairo said the United States had signaled a willingness to re-engage Syria through Washington’s encouragement of the Egyptians and Saudis to lean on Damascus to stop backing Hezbollah.

In a brazen raid into Israel on July 12, Hezbollah killed eight and captured two Israeli soldiers, provoking Israel’s biggest military campaign against Lebanon in 24 years. The fighting has left hundreds of civilians dead, mostly in Lebanon.