Diplomatic drift stalls efforts to resolve crisis

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Israel has gained more time for its war against Hizbollah as a rift between the US and France delayed a diplomatic solution that could lead to the deployment of a multinational force.

The US sought to block French demands for an "immediate" ceasefire in Lebanon last night by deciding to produce counter-proposals at the UN after a mission to the region by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

But French officials stressed that an immediate ceasefire was a precondition for a lasting political solution, which would include the disarming of the Hizbollah militias in Lebanon and the extension of the central Lebanese government's authority into the south.

"A ceasefire is a priority for France," Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French Foreign Minister, said. France is expected to lead the multinational force for Lebanon.

However, in Israel Mark Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, said any ceasefire should not allow the guerrilla group to "exploit the tragedy" of Qana for its own purposes. "It cannot be one which allows Hizbollah to regroup or rearm," he said.

He added that Europeans had to realise that if they wanted a ceasefire sooner rather than later they had to take "concrete steps" to ensure the objectives were met.

UN diplomats said it was not known when the US peace plan would be circulated. The political uncertainty led to the indefinite delay of a preliminary meeting at the UN to identify potential troop contributors.

British diplomats spent yesterday talking to the American and French governments, which could result in a merger of their proposals into a single draft resolution. However, Tony Blair's spokesman refused to speculate on how long it might take to secure agreement on a resolution.

M. Douste-Blazy held talks in Beirut last night with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, in a significant approach to the main sponsor of the Hizbollah militia

Mr Blair, who is in California and who has rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire, spoke to the Israeli, Lebanese and Turkish prime ministers. He also held talks with the Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

President George Bush was due to meet Ms Rice at the White House last night after her return from the Middle East. He said he expected the UN to act to establish "a long-lasting peace, one that is sustainable".

Before leaving Jerusalem, Ms Rice said her negotiations with Lebanon and Israel had resulted in an "emerging consensus" for an urgent ceasefire and a lasting settlement to the crisis. "I am going to push very hard to have the UN Security Council resolution this week. I think it is time," Ms Rice said.

There had been hopes that the Israeli bombing of Qana, in which nearly 60 Lebanese civilians died as they sheltered from an air raid in southern Lebanon, would increase the urgency for a diplomatic solution to the three-week crisis.

Israel appeared to be standing robustly by its demand for ceasefire terms which would fulfill its central objective of steps to disarm Hizbollah.

Israeli officials say these would include a multinational force but also ensure that Hizbollah was not allowed to rearm, possibly through support of a UN resolution promising sanctions against Syria if arms were allowed to pass to Hizbollah from there. Mr Regev said the message to Europe was "that it is no good sending out a press release saying you want a ceasefire; you have to do something to make it happen."

President Bush urged Iran to "end its financial support and supply of weapons to terrorist groups like Hizbollah".

He spoke as the 15-member Security Council adopted a resolution - by 14 votes to 1 - threatening possible diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran unless Tehran agrees to suspend uranium enrichment by the end of next month.

British and French diplomats stressed that there was no link between the nuclear dispute with Iran and the conflict between Israel and Iran's Hizbollah ally. M. Douste-Blazy said it was important to maintain contacts with Iran, while British diplomats said that Britain and Germany had also held discreet talks with the Iranians.

But Qatar's UN ambassador, Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, said he had voted against the UN resolution because of the Lebanon conflict. "We do not agree with the resolution at a time when our region is in flames," he said.