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Powell Continues Mideast Peace Mission - 2002-04-15

Secretary of State Colin Powell interrupted his Israeli-Palestinian peace mission Monday to visit Lebanon and Syria, to discuss the tense situation along Lebanon's border with Israel. Mr. Powell urged officials of both governments to rein-in Hezbollah guerrillas who have been firing at Israeli positions along the border.

The Hezbollah guerrillas, who are based in southern Lebanon and supported by Syria, have been firing rockets at Israeli positions on an almost daily basis, since Israel began its military drive in the West Bank.

Mr. Powell, who was given a helicopter tour of the Israeli side of the border last Friday, is worried the guerrilla activity might prompt a massive Israeli response and open up a second front in the current Middle East conflict.

He stressed his concern at a Beirut news conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Mahmoud Hammoud. "The United States remains concerned about the continuing violence across the Blue Line," he said. "There is a very real danger of the situation along the border widening the conflict throughout the region. It is essential to all those who are committed to peace to act immediately to stop aggressive actions along the entire border."

In his remarks, Mr. Hammoud said developments in southern Lebanon cannot be isolated from what he called Israeli "escalation" in Palestinian areas.

He also described Hezbollah attacks on Israeli forces in the disputed Shebaa farms sector of the border area as a "resistance operation," and said the United States should not be influenced by Israel's characterization of them as terrorism.

Mr. Powell met in Beirut with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who endorsed U.S. efforts to end Israeli-Palestinian violence, but said any cease-fire deal must be accompanied by efforts to get a comprehensive political settlement of the crisis.

Citing the experience of Lebanon's civil war, Mr. Hariri said there were 1,200 cease-fire deals in the more than 15 years of fighting, but none of them worked until the warring parties reached a negotiated peace in Taif, Saudi Arabia.

Secretary Powell, who met here with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, said he would confer with top advisers in Jerusalem late Monday on the future of his Israel-Palestinian peace mission, now a week old.

He said he and staff members would assess the response of both sides to U.S. ideas presented in his initial meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and discuss, in his words, "what might be achievable in the very near future."

The Secretary gave no details of the U.S. package, but said is aimed at ending the current violence, advancing a political solution and providing humanitarian relief for Palestinians.