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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 July 2006, 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK
Israelis back border force plan
Hezbollah missile fired from Tyre
Israel wants to stop Hezbollah's missile attacks
Israel has said it supports the idea of a new international force in south Lebanon, as diplomatic attempts to end the Middle East crisis gather pace.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz suggested such a force could be led by Nato, an idea not yet raised during the crisis.

He spoke during a meeting with the German foreign minister. French and British ministers are also in Israel.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due in the region on Monday on a much-anticipated visit.

Mr Peretz said Israel wanted the Lebanese army deployed in the south to prevent Hezbollah from operating in the border area, from where it has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.

"But we understand that we are talking about a weak army and that in the mid-term period Israel will have to accept a multinational force," he told German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Combat experience

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had initially brushed aside the idea of a peacekeeping force, proposed by British PM Tony Blair and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

On Sunday he said a final decision was yet to be made, but any new force should have combat experience and be made up of European Union members.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Mr Peretz was meeting with the German foreign minister
Nato officials say there have been no discussions so far on a role for the alliance in a multinational force to replace the current and very limited UN mission, Unifil.

The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said the idea was new, but the US would "take it seriously".

Mr Peretz's comments came amid a flurry of diplomacy, with French and British ministers also holding talks with Israel.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy visited the northern Israeli city of Haifa, and at one point had to take cover from Hezbollah missiles.

He called for a ceasefire "which answers Israel's legitimate aspiration to live in security and a ceasefire which preserves the state of Lebanon".

Civilian areas

British foreign office minister Kim Howells also visited Haifa, after accusing Israel of attacking "the entire Lebanese nation" during a visit to Beirut the previous day.

Britain, like the US, has not called for a ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Ms Rice is to meet Israeli PM Ehud Olmert
In an interview with the BBC Mr Howells said Britain recognised Israel's need to defend itself, described Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group and criticised it for hiding missiles and fighters in civilian areas.

He also called on Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to put pressure on Iran, widely accused of arming Hezbollah.

Correspondents say diplomacy is starting to coalesce around the idea of a multinational force, and is likely to step up a gear with the arrival of the US Secretary of State.

The BBC's Paul Adams says that senior political sources have said the Israeli government does not think its military operation will completely disarm Hezbollah and a diplomatic solution will be needed.

Syrian offer

Meanwhile, Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, told Reuters that Syria was willing to engage in dialogue with the United States to solve the crisis.

He said Hezbollah could only be disarmed if a peace deal gave back Arab territory occupied by Israel in 1967.

Mr Bolton said the US ruled out talks with Syria.

"Syria doesn't need dialogue to know what they need to do. They need to lean on Hezbollah to get them to release the two captured Israeli soldiers and stop the launch of rockets against innocent Israeli civilians," he told Fox News.

Syria's information minister has told a Spanish newspaper that his country would enter the conflict if a major Israeli ground invasion of Lebanon threatened the security of Damascus.

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