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Rice Back in Middle East for Talks With Israeli, Lebanese Officials


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is back in the Middle East Saturday for another round of talks with Israeli and Lebanese officials on ending more than two weeks of fighting. In the meantime, the violence continues as do the demands.

Israeli warplanes again struck targets deep inside Lebanon, hitting a bridge in the eastern Bekaa Valley and suspected Hezbollah targets in the south. Israeli artillery also shelled roads, towns and villages near the southern Lebanese border. A number of civilian casualties were reported. And, Hezbollah again fired dozens of rockets into northern Israel Saturday.

Villages in southern Lebanon have been mostly destroyed by more than two weeks of Israeli shelling, and, while many civilians have fled the fighting, many others are still believed to be trapped.

The United Nations Humanitarian Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland has called for a 72-hour truce to allow the evacuation of civilians from the south and the delivery of aid. Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner rejected the idea, saying a truce is not necessary, since Israel has already agreed to humanitarian corridors for that purpose. He blamed Hezbollah for not allowing humanitarian aid to reach civilians.

Pazner also said Israeli officials are eager to hear from Condoleezza Rice.

"We want the attacks on Israel to cease. We want our soldiers freed. So, we are interested to hear Dr. Condoleezza Rice's ideas," he said.

An end to Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel, as well as the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah July 12, remain Israel's most immediate conditions for stopping the conflict.

A longer-term demand remains the disarming of Hezbollah's militia, possibly integrating them into the Lebanese military and ensuring a national Lebanese army is deployed throughout the country.

There is widespread agreement an international force with a robust mandate will need to be sent to Lebanon to help in that process.

Ideas for such an international force are high on the agenda as Rice meets with Israeli and Lebanese officials during her return trip to the region.

The Lebanese Cabinet, which includes Hezbollah loyalists, has backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's call for an immediate cease-fire and the deployment of an international force.

However, a senior Hezbollah official told the Reuters news agency, details remain to be worked out. Hebzollah deputy chief Naim Kassem said Israel must immediately stop, what he called its aggression, and he said the United States and Israel must not be allowed to make political gains out of the current situation.

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