Rice heads back to Mideast as UN urges ceasefire
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed back to the Middle East on Saturday to find a way to end the bloody conflict in Lebanon as the United Nations appealed for a three-day truce to allow in desperately needed humanitarian aid.
The United States however continues to rule out an immediate ceasefire to end Israel's 18-day-old war on Hezbollah that has left hundreds of people dead, mostly civilians, in Lebanon alone, and made hundreds of thousands homeless.
Israel kept up a wave of air strikes pounding Hezbollah targets including a missile launch pad it suspected was used to fire a new type of missile that landed in Afula, 50 kms south of the border, the deepest strike into Israel since the conflict began.
The army said six soldiers were wounded in the battle for the key Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold that has been the scene of the deadliest combat between Israeli troops and Shiite Muslim guerrillas.
Israel, which last week lost nine soldiers in fighting around Bint Jbeil and a neighbouring village in its biggest single-day death toll of the conflict, said Friday it had killed 26 Hezbollah fighters.
US President George W Bush said Rice will arrive in the region on Saturday "to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable UN Security Council resolution that we can table next week."
Bush and his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, held talks in Washington on a three-step plan to end the crisis, isolate Hezbollah and its backers Iran and Syria, and set the stage for a long-term solution for the Middle East.
Blair said world powers would meet at UN headquarters in New York Monday to discuss the possible deployment of a multinational stabilisation force in Lebanon.
But they again refused to call for an immediate ceasefire to stop Israel's offensive, saying a more comprehensive solution was necessary.
"This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East. Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for a broader change in the region," said Bush.
The two leaders also warned Israel's arch-rivals Syria and Iran that they must become "proper and responsible members of the international community" or face "the risk of increasing confrontation."
Facing a potential humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland called for a 72-hour truce to allow casualties to be evacuated and food and medicine to be sent into the war zone.
He cited Lebanese health ministry figures saying that more than 600 people had been killed in Lebanon since Israel launched its offensive against Hezbollah targets on July 12 in response to the capture of two soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid.
Israel has ordered the mobilisation of thousands of army reservists to bolster its assault and stepped up its air war aimed at stopping rocket fire and freeing the captured soldiers.
But on Saturday, Hezbollah militants gave a new display of their firepower, launching a new heavy-warhead missile across the border.