While the UN fiddles... the Middle East burns

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The Independent Online

Israel suffered its worst casualties in its 26-day war on Hizbollah while United Nations negotiations for a ceasefire intensified.

A direct hit by a Katyusha rocket killed 12 Israeli soldiers in the border kibbutz of Kfar Giladi yesterday while a barrage of rockets aimed at Israel's third city, Haifa, left three civilians dead and 150 wounded.

On the other side of the border, 19 Lebanese civilians were killed by Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon. The heavy casualties reinforced Israel's insistence that any UN ceasefire resolution must ensure that Hizbollah gunmen cannot return to its northern border. Diplomats hope that foreign ministers will vote in the next day or two on a United Nations resolution, despite Lebanon rejecting the US-French draft because it failed to order an immediate ceasefire and Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon.

But the US and Britain warned that a UN resolution was only a "first step" towards ending the violence, as Israel and Hizbollah militants used the window before a vote to inflict maximum damage.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said: "We're trying to deal with a problem that has been festering and brewing in Lebanon now for years and years and years. And so it's not going to be solved by one resolution in the Security Council. These things take a while to wind down."

The Kfar Giladi attack was the worst in numbers of Israeli victims since the conflict began, and also caused the highest single death toll of Israeli soldiers in the same period. But Haifa was in chaos after Hizbollah launched its worst attack on the city. Last night Israel claimed it had hit the Hizbollah site that had launched the rocket attacks at the city.

The 12 reservists in Kfar Giladi appeared to have been sitting and standing in the shade of a cemetery wall for a briefing when a Katyusha rocket landed right by them, incinerating two cars in the parking lot beside the wall.

As heavy smoke hung in the air from brush fires ignited by other rockets in a withering 15-minute barrage, which landed in the hills above the town of Kiryat Shmona, the charred remains of the vehicles and other debris had been piled high by the wall. Sponge mattresses, possibly from the men's packs, were also piled in the parking lot.

A member of the Kfar Giladi security committee said that, unlike local civilians, the victims had not taken cover in shelters when sirens sounded.

"This shouldn't have happened," he said. "We sounded the alert several minutes before the rocket hit." An officer at the scene said that the explosion had blasted shrapnel 30 metres away. The front of one of the destroyed cars was compressed, suggesting the rocket might have landed directly on it. There was also what looked like a small crater close to the wall.

Intensive diplomatic activity was going on behind the scenes last night, as Tony Blair telephoned President George Bush and the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. He also sought to contact Jacques Chirac, whose country is expected to lead a multinational force in southern Lebanon that would be part of a longer-term solution described in the draft plan.

"They discussed how they will get the resolution through," said a Downing Street aide. "We can't take anything for granted."

The draft text calls for a "full cessation of hostilities". Whereas Hizbollah is expected to observe an "immediate" ceasefire, Israel is instructed to immediately halt "all offensive military operations". Israel would therefore be allowed to hit back if Hizbollah did not refrain from all attacks. The draft would allow Israeli troops to stay in southern Lebanon until an international force was deployed there.

In Beirut, Hizbollah announced it would agree to the ceasefire only after Israel stopped all attacks and withdrew from Lebanese territory. Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, who represents Hizbollah in negotiations, said the draft resolution was unacceptable since it did not deal with Beirut's key demands, including a release of prisoners held by Israel.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's Prime Minister, said that his government would demand amendments to the resolution.Israeli officials were reluctant to comment on the provisional text, which was published on Saturday and which security council diplomats continued to discuss yesterday, probably because it meets far more Israeli demands than Lebanese.

The Israelis were less happy, however, with a supervisory role assigned to Unifil, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, until a more robust international force was in place. Israel has long complained that Unifil has failed to prevent Hizbollah attacks. The draft also provides for an eventual handover of the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, although UN cartographers confirmed when Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000 that the area had been captured from Syria in the 1967 war. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is reported to be flexible on the territorial dispute, provided Israel's other requirements are met.

Margaret Beckett will fly to the UN to press for "humanitarian corridors " to get food and medical supplies to the shattered communities as a priority immediately after the cessation of violence is agreed on the ground in the Lebanon.

The British efforts to establish humanitarian aid convoys without the fear of being attacked by Israeli jets may deflect some of the criticism against Tony Blair for agreeing to a UN resolution which falls short of an immediate ceasefire.

Day 26

* In the deadliest day of the war for Israel, Hizbollah rockets kill 12 soldiers in the town of Kfar Giladi.

* Further Hizbollah rocket attacks on Haifa kill three civilians and leave 150 people injured. Several are trapped under rubble.

* Israel says troops will remain in Lebanon until a foreign force arrives.

* Israeli army claims it has captured a Hizbollah fighter who took part in the abduction of two Israeli soldiers which triggered the conflict.

* At least 19 Lebanese civilians and a soldier are killed by Israel's bombardment on the south of the country. Israeli air strike hits a truck near a UN convoy, killing two people.

* The conflict has killed more than 800 people, mostly Lebanese civilians.