- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

ROME — An Israeli artillery strike killed at least two United Nations peacekeepers yesterday in what U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an “apparently deliberate strike” on the eve of a major peace conference here today.

Two more peacekeepers were feared dead in the attack on their post in southern Lebanon.

Hours earlier Israel began outlining its terms for the deployment of an international stabilization force of up to 20,000 troops along its border with Lebanon ahead of today’s conference to which the Jewish state is not invited.

The U.N. chief said the strike on a clearly marked U.N. border outpost was “apparently deliberate” and demanded Israel investigate. A bomb dropped by an Israeli warplane scored a direct hit on the post in the town of Khiyam, near the eastern sector of the border, U.N. officials said.

The victims were from Austria, Canada, China and Finland, U.N. and Lebanese military officials said. It was not immediately known which two were confirmed dead.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, expressed his “deep regret” for the deaths and denied Israel hit the post intentionally.

“I am shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement of the secretary-general, insinuating that Israel has deliberately targeted the U.N. post,” he said, calling the assertions “premature and erroneous.”

Although U.S., European and Arab officials here avoided discussing specific proposals and warned against high expectations from the Rome meeting, their Israeli counterparts were not shy about offering details of a plan they shared with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier in the day.

Most countries now see the proposed buffer force as the best hope for ending Israel’s two-week-old war with Hezbollah.

Mr. Annan said in New York that 15 strikes came close to the U.N. position during the day, and that Israeli forces continued their assault even during efforts to rescue the dead and wounded peacekeepers.

Ground fighting continued around Bint Jbail, a Lebanese town described by its residents as “the capital of the resistance,” where an estimated 200 Hezbollah militants held out against surrounding Israeli forces.

Israel resumed its shelling of Beirut’s southern suburbs after a one-day pause and continued air strikes across southern Lebanon, where about 300 Americans were thought to have become trapped while visiting family for the summer. Hezbollah again fired rockets into northern Israel, killing a girl.

Looking ahead to today’s meeting in Rome, Israeli officials said a border force of 10,000 to 20,000 troops could be deployed in stages, within a week or two after a decision is made. Its mission would be to keep Hezbollah about 13 miles from the border and prevent it from firing rockets. It also could help prevent weapons supplies coming in from Syria, they said.

Until such a force moves in, however, Israel intends to control a security zone in southern Lebanon and fire at anyone who enters it, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said yesterday.

“We have no other option,” he said. “We will have to build a new security strip … that will be a cover for our forces until international forces arrive.” The size of the zone would vary, Mr. Peretz said, and other officials estimated that it could be between 2 and 6 miles wide in various places.

U.S. officials traveling with Miss Rice, who arrived last night to participate in today’s conference with 15 other countries and three international organizations, declined to discuss Israel’s or any other plan, saying they did not want to hurt their diplomatic efforts in Rome.

For the same reason, they said, Miss Rice refused to take questions from reporters after meetings yesterday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, issuing only prepared statements.

But a senior U.S. official said it was not realistic to wait for a cease-fire before moving ahead with the international force because that might take a long time. At the same time, the official said, the security force would not “shoot its way” into southern Lebanon.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on French television that “if the United States wants to put in an international force when there is no cease-fire, that could worry other countries in the region.” Miss Rice has been pushing for a “lasting” and “enduring” halt to the violence, while everybody else present in Rome has called for an immediate cease-fire.

As for who would make up the security force, there have been no volunteers so far. Israel, in another show of enthusiasm for foreign troops after decades of disliking the idea, has suggested the European Union or NATO.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said that the idea of NATO leading the force has not been discussed among the allies and that there were no plans to put it on the agenda, unless a specific request is received in Brussels. The United States, the most formidable NATO member, has ruled out participating in the force.

The last time Americans took part in a similar operation, 241 Marines were killed in a Hezbollah suicide bombing in Lebanon.

The European Union has not rejected the idea of contributing troops, although individual members such as Denmark have said they are already stretched with forces deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.

“The EU as a whole has the intention of fully participating in the solution of this conflict,” said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. “But nobody wants to commit forces until they know what their responsibilities are, as well as their mandate and objectives.”

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said the “key issue” of the international force “is its mandate, not where the soldiers would come from.”

“Leaders would not allow their troops to go from house to house and disarm Hezbollah,” he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Before any decision on a security force is taken, he said, there has to be “some basic political agreement” between Israel and Hezbollah.

Mr. Malloch Brown urged the United States to deal directly with the militant group, something it has refused to do. “Talking to a terrorist movement doesn’t imply that you’ve come around to their point of view,” he said. “Peacekeeping works when you are there to enforce an agreement.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said before leaving for Rome that he did not “expect the Rome conference to lead to a cease-fire, even if we must do everything in our power to reach one.”

But Mr. Annan said before he departed from New York on Monday that it is “important we leave Rome with a concrete strategy … as to how we are going to deal with this, and we do not walk away empty-handed and, once again, dash the hopes of those who are caught in this conflict.”

cThis article is based in part on wire service reports.

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