World powers called on Wednesday for an urgent ceasefire in Lebanon but offered no plan to end fierce fighting between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas.
Foreign ministers from the United States, Europe and the Middle East papered over their differences and agreed on the need for an international military force with a U.N. mandate to secure the Israeli-Lebanese border once the conflict abated.
However, with the United States firmly backing Israel’s continued assault on the Iranian-backed militia, little more than rhetoric and pledges of humanitarian aid and eventual reconstruction emerged from the one-day Rome conference.
They vowed “to work immediately to reach with the utmost urgency a ceasefire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities”, that have killed hundreds and driven more than half a million Lebanese and many Israelis from their homes.
That fell short of the wish of Arab leaders, Italy, France and the United Nations for a call for an immediate unconditional ceasefire, as a result of U.S. opposition.
“I would have liked something clearer,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told LCI television. “I regret there was not a call for an immediate ceasefire.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that no truce could be called until conditions were right and said there could be no return to the previous situation.
“We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a ceasefire that will be sustainable,” she told a closing news conference.
Neither Israel nor Hizbollah and its two key backers — Syria and Iran — were invited to the Rome conference, held two weeks after Hizbollah triggered the fighting with a cross-border raid by its fighters who killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two.
At the United Nations in New York, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told reporters his country and others in the region should have been invited to the Rome meeting.
“The solution is not about sending a U.N. force or an another international force here or there. The solution should deal with the core issue of the conflict, which is the continuous Israeli occupation of part of our lands, in Palestine, in Syria and in Lebanon,” he said.
In Rome, Rice said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had agreed to try to persuade Damascus and Tehran to exercise responsibility.
Israel’s response to the Rome statement included a renewed call for Hizbollah to release the Israeli soldiers, cease rocket attacks and disarm. It also called for the strengthening of the Lebanese army.
One European participant said it had been a struggle to get a mention of “urgency” in the final statement and acknowledged: “Out of this meeting, there’s no (peace) plan as such.”
The meeting was extended by 90 minutes while delegates argued over the word “immediate”.
Another diplomat said it was now up to the U.N. Security Council to “get its teeth into a resolution on a ceasefire or stabilization force in the next two or three days”.
Asian foreign ministers, meeting in Kuala Lumpur, were more critical of Israel for an “apparently deliberate” air strike on a U.N. post in Lebanon and demanded an immediate ceasefire.
Israel expressed regret but denied deliberately killing the four U.N. observers and promised to investigate Tuesday’s shelling incident.
In talks on the sidelines, diplomats said France, Italy and Spain all offered to participate in a U.N.-mandated peace force, subject to political conditions being met. Turkey, Sweden, Greece and Finland have also said they would consider joining.
France and Germany poured cold water on the idea of sending NATO troops to secure peace in south Lebanon.
“ARMED WING OF THE WEST”
In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, President Jacques Chirac said France could participate in a peace force mandated by the United Nations once there was a ceasefire, but it would be wrong for the U.S.-led alliance to be involved.
“Like it or not, NATO is perceived as the armed wing of the West in this region, so in terms of its image, NATO is not right for the job,” he said.
A German government spokesman said NATO “does not have priority for a possible stabilization force” and ruled out sending the alliance’s newly created reaction force.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he did not exclude a future role but “this is not the moment”.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, in an impassioned speech to the conference, stressed the dangers in delaying an end to the fighting and vowed to sue Israel and demand compensation for “barbaric destruction” suffered by its people.
“The more we delay a ceasefire, the more we are going to witness more…of the destruction and more of the aggression against civilians in Lebanon,” Siniora said.
The conference began with a minute’s silence for the victims of the 15-day-old conflict, which has killed 418 people in Lebanon and 42 Israelis.
The United States, which has firmly backed Israel, dismissed suggestions that the Rome talks had failed.
“What do you mean they broke down? They came up with an agreement that talked about an urgent ceasefire,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters in Washington.
(Additional reporting by Jon Boyle in Paris, Louis Charbonneau in Berlin, Sue Pleming, Nelson Graves, Stephen Brown and Phil Stewart in Rome, and Crispian Balmer in Paris)
© Reuters 2006