As Rice arrives, Olmert threatens 'severe measures'

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The Independent Online

Israel is determined to keep fighting Hizbollah and will take "severe measures" against the Lebanese guerrillas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today, indicating there will be no let-up in Israel's two-week military offensive.

Olmert spoke at the start of a meeting with the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called for a ceasefire, but not at any price. "We need to ensure that we will not return to the previous situation," Rice said.

"We need to begin to really lay the ground work for an enduring peace in this region," she added.

Rice said both Israeli and Lebanese civilians are suffering as a result of the fighting. She maintained the Bush administration's position that a cessation in hostilities must come with conditions that make an enduring peace, saying the time has come for an urgent end to the violence hanging over the region.

"I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib," she said. "We, of course, also urgently want to end the violence."

Israel has demanded that as part of a truce, Hizbollah be dismantled and the Lebanese army be deployed on the Israeli-Lebanese border, but has indicated it would accept an international peacekeeping force in the area. The Lebanese government insists there be a truce before a longer-term deal is worked out.

Olmert said that for now, Israel's offensive would continue.

"Israel is determined to continue on in the fight against Hizbollah. We will ... stop them. We will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians for the one purpose of killing them," Olmert said.

Olmert acknowledged the Israeli offensive has caused humanitarian problems and said he would work with the US to try to alleviate them. Some 750,000 Lebanese have been displaced by the fighting.

Olmert blamed Hizbollah for the suffering of the Lebanese civilians.

"We are aware of the state of humanitarian affairs of the population of Lebanon as a result of the brutality of Hizbollah," he said. "I think I can say in complete sincerity that Lebanon and Israel are both victims of this brutal terrorist, murderous organization."

* In the West Bank town of Ramallah, club-wielding Palestinian police scuffled with hundreds of Palestinians in an anti-US protest outside a government building where Condoleezza Rice was about to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Chanting "Rice, out, out!" and carrying the flags of militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, about 1,000 protesters clashed with police out front of Abbas' headquarters. Some women protesters carried large photographs of Lebanese who have died in the fighting in Lebanon.

* Israeli warplanes destroyed a house in the market city of Nabatiyeh today, killing seven people. In a pre-dawn raid, Israeli warplanes destroyed two neighboring houses in Nabatiyeh, which lies 16 miles north of Bint Jbail and has been heavily bombarded in the past few days.

And Israeli troops sealed off a key Hezbollah stronghold in fierce fighting in south Lebanon. An Israeli military official said troops had surrounded Bint Jbail, a town that has symbolic importance to Hezbollah as one of the centers of resistance to the Israeli occupation 1982-2000.

Up to 200 Hezbollah guerrillas are believed to be defending the town, which lies about 2.5 miles north of the Israeli border.

Outlining the scope of the Israeli campaign for the first time, a senior army commander said Israel would only encircle Lebanese towns and villages near the border with Israel and did not plan a deeper push into Lebanon.

* Hizbollah fired at least 10 rockets at the Israeli port city of Haifa today, and one hit a city bus and another a house. Five people were hurt, one seriously and two moderately, doctors and medics said.

Two of the rockets hit very close to a Haifa hospital, doctors told Channel 10 TV. Israeli police told the TV about a dozen rockets had hit the city.

One rocket hit a city bus but only the driver was on board at the time. Puddles of blood were seen on the front steps leading up to the driver's seat and witnesses said he was seriously hit. The windscreen was hit by shrapnel and windows were blown out.

The house that was hit suffered heavy damage but no one was seriously hurt in that rocket attack, witnesses told the TV.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav told the TV that residents had felt free to leave bomb shelters since rockets had not fallen all day.

A total of 17 Israeli civilians have been killed in Hizbollah rocket attacks.

* Saudi King Abdullah appealed to the world today to stop Israeli attacks on Lebanon, saying that if peace moves fail, the Middle East could be engulfed in war.

In a statement read out on state television, the king said: "If the option of peace fails as a result of Israeli arrogance, then the only option remaining will be war, and God alone knows what the region would witness in a conflict that would spare no one."

The king has decreed donations totalling 1.5 billion dollars to Lebanon, said the royal court statement. The king has assigned 500 million dollars for the reconstruction of Lebanon, and one billion dollars to be deposited in Lebanon's central bank to support the economy.

The king said that the Saudi government had been trying to bring a halt to the violence since it began on July 12, when Hezbollah guerrillas snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid from Lebanon.

"It must be said that patience can't last forever, and if the brutal Israeli military continues to kill and destroy, no one can foresee what may happen," the king said.