Rice resists immediate ceasefire at summit

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The Independent Online

Crisis talks on Lebanon yesterday ended with public divisions over the need for an immediate ceasefire and without agreement on who could lead an international military force for the region, or what its mandate should be.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, resisted pressure to demand an instant end to Israel's military offensive, insisting that any ceasefire must be "sustainable" and that there could be no return to the previous status quo.

Underlining the differences at the conference in Rome, the Italian Foreign Minister, Massimo D'Alema, said many participants appealed for an immediate and unconditional truce "to reach, with utmost urgency, a ceasefire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities". Ms Rice won backing from Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, who said: "Even if you could get a ceasefire half an hour ago, you would probably be back in hostilities in a few days." When asked about the timescale for ending the fighting, Ms Beckett said: "We are looking at days, not weeks."

In Israel, meanwhile, the full impact of what was easily the worst day for its military since its offensive in Lebanon began 15 days ago was proving hard to absorb. Yesterday saw one of the worst death tolls of soldiers in a single day since the Operation Defensive Shield incursion into Jenin, in the West Bank, four years ago.

It was only during the 8pm news bulletins on Israeli TV that the army confirmed that any soldiers had been killed - a figure of eight that seemed certain to rise significantly. The death toll alone would probably not be enough to dent the solid support shown by the opinion polls for an operation which started in response to the abduction of two soldiers but widened rapidly to that of "crippling" Hizbollah as part of a "change in the rules of the game".

But it comes at a time when sections of the media have started to question the validity of the strategy - but not the goals - pursued by the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. The loss of soldiers in war is one thing; losses without tangible results in security might be another.

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