In Heels, Rice Sets Off on Her Middle East Shuffle

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Secretary of State Rice arrived in Israel last night with no sign that America’s belated diplomatic intervention would bring an early end to the violence in Lebanon.

She had earlier visited Beirut, where she said she was “deeply concerned” by the plight of the Lebanese people who have been suffering the consequences of two weeks of continuous Israeli attacks.

The White House announced it was sending helicopters and ships to provide humanitarian aid to Lebanon, where at least 320 people have been killed and many more wounded.

The Lebanese government estimates 750,000 have been driven from their homes.

But President Bush continued to resist pressure to call for a cease-fire, which his press secretary, Tony Snow, said would be a “fool’s errand.”

Ms. Rice said the need for the fighting to stop was “urgent” but that her mission was to work for a truce that was “sustainable.”

She told Lebanese leaders that Hezbollah would have to release two captured Israeli soldiers and pull back 12 miles from the border before there could be any cease-fire. The tough conditions are unlikely to be met and the American position effectively leaves the way open to Israel to continue its air and land operations.

While offering humanitarian assistance, America is also speeding up delivery of a consignment of satellite- and laser-guided bombs to Israel.

Reports in America and the Middle East said about 100 deep-penetration bombs were on their way to Israel for use against shelters where Hezbollah leaders were thought to be hiding.

In London, Prime Minister Blair claimed an international peace plan could be drawn up within days as he bowed to calls to step up efforts for a diplomatic solution.He described what was happening in Lebanon as a “catastrophe” but said innocent Israelis had been killed, too.

So far 37 Israelis have died. The government is hoping for progress at a meeting in Rome tomorrow that will be attended by Ms. Rice and many of the major players in the crisis. The Blair plan includes an end to bomb and rocket attacks, the return of two captured Israeli soldiers, and the deployment of an international force along Lebanon’s southern border.

Heavy fighting continued yesterday just inside the border as Israeli tanks and ground troops tried to wrest control of the town of Bint Jbeil, 2 1/2 miles from the frontier, from Hezbollah.

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