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Foreign Ministers Gather in Rome for Conference on Lebanon


U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have arrived in Rome to take part in a meeting of key Middle East players. One of the main aims of the conference is to try to arrange a cease-fire between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas.

A strict security plan is in place for the one day Middle East meeting co-chaired by Italy and the United States at the Italian foreign ministry in Rome. Among those attending the conference are U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as ministers and top representatives from 18 nations and international organizations. They will be discussing ways to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who will speak at the beginning of the session, has said that a cease-fire is the main objective of the conference. He added that discussions would also focus on the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon and the problem of refugees, which he said was of "astonishing proportions." Seven hundred thousand Lebanese have been displaced so far by Israel's offensive.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said urgent measures are needed to halt the violence and get humanitarian aid to people uprooted by the fighting. He said he would like to see that a package is agreed on at the Rome conference to include a cease-fire, the deployment of an international force and the release of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah.

Secretary of State Rice has indicated that Washington wants a solution that addresses the root causes of the conflict, for which it blames Hezbollah. Rice, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday, is pushing for a ceasefire deal that will include the release of the captured Israeli soldiers, Hezbollah's withdrawal from along the Israeli border and the deployment of U.N. forces in the region.

Israel is not among the participants at the Rome meeting. However, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Tuesday that Israel was ready for a ceasefire providing certain conditions were met.

In an interview published in Italy's main daily Corriere della Sera, Livni said that Israel was prepared for an immediate truce providing Hezbollah positions were dismantled and the border between Israel and Lebanon re-established.

Livni added that a cease-fire that would allow Syria and Iran to rearm Hezbollah and Hezbollah to re-position itself and resume the violence would be pointless. He also said Israel wanted the Rome conference to condemn Hezbollah as a terrorist group, something Europe has been reluctant to do.

Meanwhile, some countries have expressed support for a new multinational peacekeeping force. Israel has suggested it prefers a NATO-led coalition. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the deployment of a new international force was a difficult but crucial part of an overall solution to end Lebanon's political instability. But many issues remain to be defined about the possible peacekeeping force, including how it will be formed, who will contribute to it and what its mandate will be.

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