Pressure Growing on U.S. to Intervene, Rice and Annan to Confer on French Cease-fire Initiative

Security Council members and European countries pressure U.S to find diplomatic solution.

WASHINGTON and NEW YORK - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to meet in New York yesterday evening with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan ?(after press time?), in an effort to repulse the French initiative in the Security Council for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon.

The meeting comes on the heels of growing criticism among several Security Council members and European countries regarding the United States' abstention from efforts to secure a cease-fire. France on Wednesday launched an initiative to get the Security Council, which is holding an open debate today, to call for an immediate cease-fire.Rice will meet today with the UN task force on Lebanon for a briefing on the humanitarian situation there in the wake of Israeli bombing.

In response to an American request, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced yesterday, in coordination with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, that Israel will open a "humanitarian corridor" for transfering vital supplies to South Lebanese residents, on French boats that will dock at the port of Sidon.

Rice will probably leave for the Middle East on Sunday, going first to Cairo for meetings with Arab foreign ministers, and making only a brief stop in Israel on Tuesday, for updates and briefings. Rice will not be able to remain for talks because of an obligation to attend the Asian Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, but other meetings scheduled for her at the start of the week in Japan, China, Vietnam and other countries in the region will likely be postponed.

Israeli and American officials have been in constant touch over developments in Lebanon, and the assessment in Israel is that in view of Rice?s schedule, there remains a window of a week to 10 days until she can return to the region for more focused talks on attaining a cease-fire agreement.The White House spokesman denied Wednesday claims of American-Israeli ?coordination? on the offensive, and said that Israel operates by its own plans. The State Department spokesman underscored the "root causes" for the outbreak of violence, and pointed an accusing finger at Iran and Syria, in line with other administration spokesmen this week.

The trio of senior UN envoys that returned from the region submitted its recommendations yesterday. Among these: handing the kidnapped soldiers over to the Lebanese government and deploying a international force on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line to help Lebanon deploy its army in the south. The team also recommends that the Lebanese government implement Resolutions 1559 and 1680, for now, but that an international conference be convened to set a timetable for implementing the 1989 Taif Accords."What is most urgently needed is an immediate cessation of hostilities," Annan told the Security Council yesterday after receiving the delegation?s report.

Annan accused Hezbollah of sparking the crisis, holding "an entire nation hostage" and exhibiting "reckless disregard for the wishes of the elected government of Lebanon and for the interests of the Lebanese people and the wider region."

He also repeated an earlier acknowledgment that Israel has a right to defend itself under the UN charter, but condemned Israel?s response as "excessive use of force."

The U.S. is unenthusiastic about the proposal to deploy an international force on the Lebanese-Israeli border, but the idea is gaining support among Security Council members and the European Union. Administration officials in Washington say the time for a cease-fire has not arrived, and accept Israel's contention that there is no point stopping too early without attaining the operation?s goals.Aluf Benn contributed to this report.