Britain and US defy demand for immediate ceasefire

Israeli warplanes continued their bombardment of Lebanon yesterday, defying a demand by Kofi Annan for an immediate end to fighting on the ninth day of a war that has led to the "collective punishment of the Lebanese people".

Two countries, the US and Britain, defiantly refused to back the international clamour for an immediate ceasfire between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas. Their ambivalence about civilian deaths in Lebanon has given Israel a powerful signal that it can continue its attacks with impunity.

However, Israel's ground offensive against Hizbollah was blunted when four of its soldiers were reported killed in clashes in south Lebanon. Across the country clouds of smoke appeared as the aerial bombardment continued and the evacuation of foreign nationals, including Americans, was stepped up. Israel said it would allow humanitarian aid to flow into Lebanon as international outrage grew over civilian casualties which are now above 300.

Mr Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, used his emotive statement to the Security Council to reflect the deep-seated international unease about the human cost of Israel's response to the onslaught of rockets from Hizbollah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran. "What is most urgently needed is an immediate cessation of hostilities," he said. However, he added that there were "serious obstacles to reaching a ceasefire, or even to diminishing the violence quickly."

An official close to the secretary general said he had taken soundings with "everyone" before making the statement. Mr Annan was also due to brief the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, last night on the findings of a UN mission which concluded there should be a temporary cessation of hostilities.

The statement was sharply criticised by Israel and the United States. In London, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, told the Cabinet that those calling for a halt to hostilities, including the French government, were in effect demanding a one-sided ceasefire "with rockets still going into Israel".

Using similar language, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, said: "The first thing that must be addressed is cessation of terror before we even talk about cessation of hostilities."

John Bolton, the American ambassador, said: "As we've said repeatedly, what we seek is a long-term cessation of hostilities that's part of a comprehensive change in the region and part of a real foundation for peace, but still no one has explained how you conduct a ceasefire with a group of terrorists."

Britain and the US say they are not opposed to a ceasefire, but that Hizbollah must first stop firing missiles from south Lebanon into Israel and release two abducted soldiers. Countries such as Russia, which are calling for an immediate end to the fighting, have accused Israel of harbouring broader strategic goals than the simple return of the soldiers.

Although he accused Hizbollah guerrillas of holding "an entire nation hostage", the UN chief accused Israel of a disproportionate response. "While Hizbollah's actions are deplorable, and Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned," he told the Security Council. Israel must make "a far greater and more credible effort ... to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure".

Tony Blair spelt out the British position on Wednesday. "This would stop now if the soldiers who were kidnapped wrongly... were released," he said. "It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians. If those two things happened, let me promise... I would be the first out there saying: 'Israel should halt this operation'."

Britain, the US, Israel and many of the other 189 UN General Assembly members will state their positions today at a public meeting of the UN Security Council as the 15-member chamber tries to reach a consensus on how to end the conflict. But the positions of the five permanent members of the council appear increasingly to reflect those before the Iraq invasion - with the US and Britain on one side, and France, Russia and China on the other.

France is president of the Security Council this month and is therefore charged with trying to bridge the gap between the opposing sides.

The EU said yesterday that a ceasefire was essential before any peacekeeping mission can be deployed to southern Lebanon, and said the two sides were "not listening enough" to calls for an end to violence.

Matti Vanhanen, the Prime Minister of Finland, which holds the EU presidency, did not specify that he wants an immediate ceasefire - thereby avoiding a direct clash with Britain. However, Mr Vanhanen' allies said he privately supported the idea of an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Of the European countries, the UK has expended most diplomatic effort in trying to head off calls within the EU for an immediate end to the fighting. European diplomats believe that the US will only contemplate ceasefire calls when Ms Rice visits the region next week, giving Israel's offensive several more days.

Mr Vanhanen's comments went further than a carefully crafted declaration agreed by EU foreign ministers on Monday, in which the UK resisted calls for an immediate ceasefire. But the Foreign Office said it agreed with Mr Vanhanen's comments yesterday because he said only that an end to hostilities was a precondition of sending an international intervention force.

What was said

Kofi Annan Secretary General of the United Nations

"What is most urgently needed is an immediate cessation of hostilities."

Matti Vanhanen Prime Minister of Finland, which holds the EU Presidency

"All parties to the conflict must first commit to a ceasefire."

Dan Gillerman Israel's Ambassador to the UN

"The first thing that must be addressed is cessation of terror before we even talk about cessation of hostilities."

John Bolton The United States' Ambassador to the UN

"What we seek is a long-term cessation of hostilities... but still no one has explained how you conduct a ceasefire with a group of terrorists."

Tony Blair Prime Minister

"If it is to stop, it has to stop by undoing how it started. And it started with the kidnap of Israeli soldiers and the bombardment of northern Israel. If we want this to stop, that has to stop."

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