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Emergency Middle East Conference Will Push Peace Plan

DW staff (jb)July 25, 2006

As fighting in Israel and Lebanon moves into its 13th day, European, US and Middle Eastern foreign ministers have agreed to meet in Rome Wednesday to try to move a ceasefire plan forward.

Will the warring parties calm down under the auspices of Rome's wolf?Image: Picture Alliance/ dpa

Foreign Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will attend an emergency conference on the Middle East in Rome on Wednesday. The meeting comes amid a diplomatic rift over the international response to the 13-day-old violence with the United States increasingly estranged from European and Arab allies.

Italian government sources told AFP that Israel could also be present at the high-level gathering, which will include representatives from Britain, Egypt, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain as well as the United Nations and the World Bank. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said he would use the meeting to demand an end to the fighting, which has killed more than 360 people in Lebanon, along with at least 37 Israelis.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Jerusalem
Steinmeier, right, has already made one trip to the Middle EastImage: AP

The German government said it hoped the conference would reach "rapid and practical solutions" to humanitarian issues such as the evacuation and well-being of refugees who are flooding out of southern Lebanon fleeing Israeli bombardment.

In Moscow, a foreign ministry spokesman said the meeting "should help to set out a timetable of urgent action to end the crisis." Italy, which has pledged peacekeepers, has said the Rome meeting will aim to find "ways of arriving at a ceasefire, relaunching humanitarian action for the Lebanese people and reflecting on how to stabilize the region, including through sending a multinational force."

Israeli leaders, while warning that their offensive against Hezbollah could last for some time, have suggested they would accept some form of international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon after meetings with Steinmeier and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the past few days.

Calls for peacekeepers growing

The chorus in favor of an international peacekeeping force for the region is growing amid US and Israeli acquiescence to the idea.

"I think it is obvious that this international presence is necessary because the level of trust between the belligerent parties is non-existent," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters. "Only with an international force can we have the minimum conditions for peace. Personally I would be pleased if that force was basically European and if EU member states were available to contribute to it once it is approved by the United Nations."

Glücklich, wer einen Paß besitzt
Evacuation operations are slowing down, officials saidImage: AP

An international force, which many European leaders support in theory, is causing public flip-flopping in Germany.

After measured and rather vague responses from German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this week in response to questions of whether Germany would contribute troops, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung reversed the official line when he told Germany's N24 television station Berlin "could not refuse such a peace mission" under certain circumstances.

Pleading for aid

The offensive has left Lebanon virtually cut off from the world, made hundreds of thousands of people refugees in their own country and destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure.

UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland issued an urgent appeal for $150 million (110 million euros) over the next three months to cover the basic needs of 800,000 people made homeless by the violence and criticized both Israel and Hezbollah for attacking civilians.

Condoleezza Rice trifft Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem
Condoleezza Rice is now trying to take the diplomatic leadImage: AP

"My position is very clear -- the hostilities must stop immediately," he told reporters. "Civilian populations are not targets. That is against the law, humanitarian law."

He said both a cessation of hostilities and getting effective aid to vulnerable groups were "long overdue."

The overall amount of the appeal included a call by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) for $23.8 million to help Lebanese children who have borne the brunt of Israel's military onslaught. Egeland said the first UN convoy of trucks carrying emergency humanitarian aid will leave Beirut for the southern port city of Tyre on Wednesday. Another convoy is due for Friday.

Egeland said he hoped the delivery of aid would continue "every second day" with the agreement of the Israeli military, which has promised safe corridors for vehicles carrying aid supplies.

Stranded in the war zone

As the bombardments continue, foreign governments have sent ferries, warships and cruise liners to evacuate stranded nationals, mainly to the nearby resort island of Cyprus which has been battling to find temporary accommodation and flights for the estimated 70,000 evacuees at peak summer holiday season.

As of Monday night, at least 300 Americans and Europeans were still in the south of Lebanon, missing a boat sent to rescue them. Still the majority of foreign nationals have been evacuated and French and German embassy officials said there were only a few hundred of their citizens left in the country.

"The evacuation operations are now down to a trickle," a German official said.