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US Seeks to Head Off Escalation of Violence By Hezbollah - 2002-06-17

The United States has made new appeals to Syria, Lebanon and Iran to urge them to restrain Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. The appeals come amid concerns the pro-Iranian group may be planning to escalate attacks against Israel in an effort to disrupt U.S.-led regional peace efforts.

Officials here say the contacts, through embassy channels to Syria and Lebanon and through an intermediary with Iran, came in the last few days and reflect growing concerns about a possible new eruption of violence along Israel's northern border.

Hezbollah, which gets weapons from Iran and logistical aid from the Syrians, is reported to have recently acquired a variety of new weapons, including longer-range artillery rockets capable of striking deep into Israel.

U.S. officials are worried about the prospect of Hezbollah attacks across the so-called "blue line" into Israel, which would almost certainly prompt severe Israeli retaliation, in the coming days as the administration prepares to present new Middle East peace proposals.

While declining to give details of the U.S. messages or the intelligence reports that prompted them, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is asking those with influence over Hezbollah to intercede.

"I do not think we have ever tried to provide the kind of detailed information that we might have from intelligence and other sources as to what their exact roles might be," he said. "We have made quite clear that the influence that Syria has, and others have, on Hezbollah needs to be used in a positive direction, and needs to be used to try to restrain these kinds of attacks."

The spokesman declined to say how the U.S. message was passed to Tehran, with which the United States has no diplomatic relations, but such notes have normally been conveyed by the Swiss, who look after U.S. interests in Iran.

Mr. Boucher said the United States continues to expect the Lebanese government to abide by U-N resolutions that call on it to extend its authority southward to the border with Israel.

Lebanon has been reluctant to deploy its security forces on the border strip vacated by Israel two years ago, effectively leaving the area in control of Hezbollah.

The spokesman described the border situation as an on-going problem requiring periodic U.S. attention and noted it was a major subject of talks during visits to Lebanon and Syria by Secretary of State Colin Powell during his Middle East mission in April.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is understood to have discussed the issue at length in his meeting with President Bush last week.