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Since 1st March, 1999
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Diplomacy races against rain of rockets
- Pounding continues, Europe trio in Israel

Beirut, July 23 (Reuters): Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon and Hizbollah rockets crashed into Haifa on Sunday as diplomatic efforts to end the crisis intensified.

Envoys from three European countries joined the diplomacy drive, aimed at capping fighting between Israeli forces and Hizbollah that has wrecked swathes of Lebanon and left hundreds dead.

Ministers from France, Germany and Britain all held separate talks with Israeli officials ahead of the arrival of US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Among questions up for discussion was a possible beefed up peacekeeping force for south Lebanon, an idea backed by Israel’s defence minister as a way to keep Hizbollah from the border.

European countries have been far more critical of Israel’s offensive than its main ally, the US, which has resisted growing calls for a ceasefire and made clear that it blames Iranian-backed Hizbollah for the crisis.

Few expect diplomacy to deliver swift results and an Israeli newspaper reported on Sunday that Israeli officials believe they have a green light from Washington to continue the onslaught on Hizbollah for at least another week.

“My question to Jerusalem and Beirut is the same,” said French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. “How do we reach a ceasefire as quickly as possible'”

Douste-Blazy was visiting the Israeli city of Haifa when it came under Hizbollah rocket fire that killed two people and took cover in a stairwell when the sirens sounded.

Israeli attacks aimed at Hizbollah have killed more than 360 Lebanese, most of them civilians, since the guerrilla group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12. Israeli troops have edged into southern Lebanon.

A total of 37 Israelis have died, 17 of them civilians killed by Hizbollah rockets rained on the north of the country.

A senior UN official today demanded a halt to the violence to allow aid to reach desperate civilians in Lebanon.

Civilians have taken the brunt of the 12-day war. “We have been living in hell,” Lebanese farmer Mohammad Zabad, 45, said.

Israeli factory worker Keren Hagigi said he had witnessed horrific scenes after a rocket hit an industrial zone in Haifa.

“There were wounded people on the road and a wounded person in the building too. There was terrible destruction,” he said.

Syrian deputy foreign minister Fayssal Mekdad said his country was ready for dialogue with the US and wanted an immediate ceasefire, followed by diplomacy to end the war.

Israeli defence minister Amir Peretz said Israel could accept a new international force in the south to keep Hizbollah guerrillas at bay and suggested that Nato could lead it. The US said it would take the idea seriously, but was not considering contributing troops to such a force itself.

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