WORLD / America

Rice postpones trip to Beirut
Updated: 2006-07-30 19:15

JERUSALEM - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday she is "deeply saddened by the terrible loss of innocent life," after an attack on a village in southern Lebanon. But, despite international pressure on the United States, she did not call for an immediate cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.

Rice said she spoke with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to say she would postpone a visit to Beirut on Sunday. She planned to stay in Jerusalem instead, where she said she had work to do to end the fighting.

"We are also pushing for an urgent end to the current hostilities, but the views of the parties on how to achieve this are different," she said.

Israeli missiles hit several homes in the southern Lebanese village of Qana early Sunday. Some 50 people died, according to initial reports. At least 20 bodies wrapped in white sheets were taken away, including children and elderly residents who were attacked while they were sleeping.

Rice reiterated U.S. concerns about the loss of civilian life in the fighting. Hundreds, mostly Lebanese civilians, have died in the three weeks since Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a raid into Israel. The action provoked Israel's largest military campaign against Lebanon in 24 years.

"We all recognize this kind of warfare is extremely difficult," said Rice, noting it comes in areas where civilians live. "It unfortunately has awful consequences sometimes."

"We want a cease-fire as soon as possible," said Rice, in one of her strongest statements yet on the desire to end the conflict.

The United States and Israel are pressing for a settlement that addresses enduring issues between Lebanon and Israel and disables the Hezbollah - not the quick truce favored by most world leaders.

The Qana attack comes at a damaging and difficult moment for Rice, who arrived in the Middle East for a second visit in a week and hoped to leave with progress that could lead to a decisive U.N. resolution to end the hostilities.

"I am here ... in pretty political and dicey circumstances," she said. "I do believe that it is best to try to address these issues face-to-face and see what we can achieve."

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the diplomatic dialogue, said Rice and her aides were wrapping up discussions in Jerusalem and planned to move the focus of to the U.N. headquarters in New York.

Speaking in Beirut, Saniora said the attack on Lebanese civilians demonstrates a cease-fire is the only option. "There is no place at this sad moment for any discussions other than an immediate and unconditional cease-fire as well as international investigation of the Israeli massacres in Lebanon now," he told reporters Sunday morning.

Rice said she was meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz when news of the attack came. "Once again, I was reiterating our strong concern about the impact of Israeli military operations on innocent civilians," she said.

She said she is working with all parties to try to stop the violence. "Too many innocent people - Lebanese and Israeli - have suffered. Too many people have lost their lives. Too many families are homeless. And too many children have been killed, injured or are living in fear for their lives."

"Emotions are understandably running high on all sides," she said.

Rice said she had not yet spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom she had dinner with Saturday night, but planned to reach him after an Israeli Cabinet meeting.

She has spoken by phone to Saniora to express the condolences of the U.S. government and its citizens.

"In the wake of the tragedy that the people and the government of Lebanon are dealing with today, I have decided to postpone my discussion in Beirut," Rice said. "In any case, my work today is here."

She said she will continue to meet with Israeli officials to agree on the elements of an agreement that will allow the U.N. Security Council to take action toward a resolution.

"We are making real progress on the political framework and believe the parties are coming together," she said.


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