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5-nation meeting hopes to ease Israel-Lebanon border tensions
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- International monitors gathered at a U.N. base in Lebanon on Friday in hopes of defusing the increasingly tense conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
The meeting was prompted by this week's increased fighting between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces along Lebanon's southern border. Officials from Israel, Lebanon, Syria, France and the United States attended the meeting, held at a seaside U.N. installation in Naquoura, in the zone Israel occupies in southern Lebanon.
The meeting comes under the auspices of a United Nations monitoring group set up to protect civilians in the region.
On Thursday, after several days of fighting, Hezbollah guerrillas issued a statement saying they would refrain from launching attacks against civilian targets but would continue to attack the Israeli military in southern Lebanon.
That announcement prompted the Israeli army to tell residents in northern Israel that it was safe to emerge from their bomb shelters.
Worst fighting in eight months
Both sides had accused each other of attacking civilian targets. Six Israeli soldiers have been killed and at least 15 Lebanese civilians injured since the fighting flared up late last month.
In Thursday's fighting, Israeli jets struck areas of southern Lebanon in at least a dozen sorties, wounding two Hezbollah guerrillas, security sources said.
Israeli shells also hit the outskirts of the main southern Lebanon town of Nabatiyeh, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
In turn, guerrillas said they attacked Israeli troops in the occupation zone, a strip of Lebanese territory along its southern border occupied by Israeli forces.
Security sources said a member of the Israel-allied South Lebanon Army militia was wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded near the border with Israel.
Thursday marked Israel's 12th consecutive day of airstrikes against targets in the region, the recent campaign its heaviest air raids in Lebanon in eight months.
Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon said he hoped the airstrikes would cool Hezbollah's campaign to oust Israel from southern Lebanon and warned of retaliation against more attacks.
Although the Hezbollah statement has reduced tensions somewhat, the situation remained volatile because of the Islamic guerrillas' reputation for suicide attacks.
"It is a question ... that is supported and backed by an ideology," said Hezbollah expert Nizar Hamzah. "(To) those martyrs or those individuals and those fighters, this is a reward. There is a belief here, not only an ideology, a mystical power."
The fighting has heightened calls for Syria to use its strong influence with Hezbollah guerrillas to end the fighting and resume Middle East peace talks, which have been on hold since last month.
"Syria holds all the cards in Lebanon, as everybody knows," said David Schneeweiss, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London. "If Syria wants Hezbollah not to disrupt the talks, then Syria is able to make that happen. Unfortunately, we've seen them let the leash loose, if you like, in the last few weeks, and we've seen Israel suffer heavy losses."
Syria's peace talks with Israel, which resumed in December after a 45-month break, were suspended again last month over disagreement on what the talks should focus on.
"If Syria is willing to come back to the talks," said Schneeweiss, "we're willing to resume those talks immediately."
Meeting called by France, U.S.
France and the United States called for Friday's emergency meeting of the monitoring group, set up to oversee a U.S.-sponsored cease-fire understanding in 1996. The cease-fire ended similar attacks in Lebanon that killed more than 200 civilians.
"We think that recent events only demonstrate the critical importance of developing comprehensive peace arrangements so that these kinds of crises do not recur," said U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Wednesday she would dispatch Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to the region next week and voiced a belief that Israel's peace moves with Syria and the Palestinians could survive this week's bloodshed.
Israeli jets, Hezbollah keep up retaliatory attacks
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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