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Israel rejects truce, Hezbollah defiant as Rice returns


JERUSALEM - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched a new round of diplomacy in the Middle East in a bid to end the 18-day-old Lebanon conflict, as Israel flatly rejected UN pleas for a humanitarian truce and unleashed another wave of strikes. Shortly after Rice touched down in Israel for the second time in a week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to strike cities "in the center" of the country if the Jewish state continued to attack civilians in Lebanon. Israel, backed by the United States, has refused to set a date for ending its war on the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah that has killed more than 450 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, and made hundreds of thousands homeless. In a televised speech apparently timed to coincide with Rice's arrival, Nasrallah accused the top US diplomat of returning to the region just to impose "conditions" on Lebanon as part of plans to create a new Middle East order. The latest victims of Israel's onslaught were 14 civilians, including children, killed in separate air raids on the south of the country, taking the toll of the dead to 455 - 384 them civilians AS OF JULY.29.2006 and going up. UN humanitarian coordinator Jan England had appealed for a truce to allow casualties to be removed and food and medicine to be sent into the war zone, saying one third of the casualties were children. But an Israeli foreign ministry official said a ceasefire was unacceptable "because this terrorist organization would exploit it to gather civilians to use them as a human shield in the combat zone Rice had dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and was expected to meet other top officials on Sunday. Speaking en route to Israel, she said she was expecting "fairly intense" talks with Israeli and Lebanese officials with "give and take" on both sides, but was encouraged by progress on some fronts It was the most specific indication Rice had yet given about the character of her approach with the two countries -- which she believes are key to ending the 'state within a a state' of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli radio reported late on Saturday that during the talks in Jerusalem Olmert and Rice discussed humanitarian aid for Lebanon and the possible deployment of an international force in the country. The talks did not touch on a timetable for a ceasefire, the radio report said."We are not setting a deadline, but obviously as we want an early end to the violence it is important that we get agreement on the elements," said Rice. "I think there are a lot of elements that are coming together. She hailed as "positive" a Lebanese cabinet agreement on a ceasefire plan which calls for a prisoner exchange and for the government to assert its sovereignty over the Hezbollah-controlled south. Facing tougher than expected resistance from Hezbollah fighters despite its military superiority, Israel said it had pulled its forces back from the key border town of Bint Jbeil, the scene of the deadliest ground combat. Israel, which last week lost nine soldiers in fighting around Bint Jbeil in its biggest single-day death toll of the conflict, said Saturday it had killed between 70 and 80 Hezbollah guerrillas over the past three days. Israel continued to pound Lebanon from the air, ground and sea late into Saturday night, targeting suspected Hezbollah positions in Kafra and surrounding villages southeast of Tyre. On Friday the Israeli military claimed to have hit a launch pad it suspected was used to fire a new type of missile that hit Afula, 50 kilometres (35 miles) south of the border, the deepest strike into Israel since the warring began. An explosives specialist with the Israeli police. He said that during his meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Washington Friday they agreed that a "robust multinational force must be dispatched to Lebanon quickly. Blair said world powers would meet at the UN Monday to discuss the possible deployment of the force, but Hezbollah patron Syria said it would simply be an "occupation force" that served Israel's interests. Despite pledging aid, Bush and Blair again refused to call for an immediate ceasefire to halt an offensive that has left much of Lebanese infrastructure in tatters and caused a humanitarian crisis, with shortages of food and medicines. The two leaders also warned Israel's archfoes Syria and Iran that they must become "proper and responsible members of the international community" or face "the risk of increasing confrontation. Two US aircraft carrying weapons and "hazardous material" from Texas to Tel Aviv were due to stop off in Britain this weekend, and demonstrators planned to protest Sunday against the flights. Nasrallah boasted that his guerrillas' "legendary resistance" had prevented Israel from scoring a military victory and was behind increasing calls for a settlement of the deadliest cross-border fighting in a quarter century. England cited Lebanese health ministry figures saying that more than 600 people had been killed since Israel launched its offensive on July 12 after Hezbollah captured two soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid. He said at least one third of the casualties were children. There is something fundamentally wrong with a war where there are more dead children than armed men. That has to stop," he said. Israel has mobilized thousands of army reservists and says it plans to create a narrow buffer zone in Lebanon until the mooted international force is deployed. Israel, which boasts the most powerful army in the Middle East, has lost a total of 51 people since the conflict erupted, many of them soldiers killed in combat. Two Indian UN peacekeepers were wounded on Saturday in an Israeli air raid on their post in south Lebanon. Four UN military observers were killed earlier this week in an Israeli strike on their observation post. With 800,000 Lebanese displaced by the fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross criticized the "unacceptable" humanitarian situation and said Israel had to do much more to spare civilians. In the Gaza Strip, where Israel is engaged in another assault to retrieve a third captured serviceman, warplanes bombed a suspected weapons depot and tunnels.Ground forces also launched an incursion near the Erez border crossing point in what the army said was a bid to destroy tunnels and "neutralize" bombs. Two Palestinians wounded on Thursday have died, hospital sources said, taking the toll to 147 Palestinians killed since the offensive against Gaza began in late June,