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French Version

US, France narrow differences over Lebanon ceasefire

The United States and France have significantly narrowed their differences over how to achieve a ceasefire in Lebanon and could present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council by early next week, a senior US official said Wednesday.

"I would say that our point of view and the French point of view are really converging, to the point now where we are working off a single text of a draft resolution," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"We agree on all the major elements. It's now a question of how those elements fit together and how you memorialize, encapsulate those elements in texts of UN resolutions," he said.

McCormack said Washington hoped to reach an agreement and submit the resolution at the UN within days, either this week or early next week.

There were no immediate plans for a meeting of foreign ministers from the five Security Council permanent members -- the Britain, China, France, Russia and the US -- on the matter, he added.

Ambassadors from the five nations were holding intensive talks on the crisis in New York Wednesday, while senior US officials in Washington were also in constant touch with their counterparts in other capitals in a bid to thrash out a deal, officials said.

France holds a key role in the negotiations because it is expected to provide the bulk of an international military force to be deployed in southern Lebanon as part of a deal to end three weeks of deadly fighting between Israel and the Lebanese Islamic militia Hezbollah.

The French, backed by fellow members of the European Union, have been pressing for an immediate cessation of fighting followed by a permanent ceasefire and a political deal that will involve disarming Hezbollah.

Only then would an international military force be deployed to help the Lebanese army gain effective control over southern Lebanon and prevent future Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

The United States has insisted all the elements be "intertwined" and that a ceasefire cannot be ordered until the achievement of a political agreement involving Lebanon, Hezbollah and Israel.

McCormack declined to provide details of the remaining issues under negotiation other than to say they centered primarily on "sequencing and timing" of the various elements.

But a senior US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said one issue involved the possible deployment of a "rapid reaction force" to southern Lebanon as soon as Israel and Hezbollah agree to halt the fighting.

Such a force could help reassure Israel that Hezbollah would not take advantage of a lull in fighting to rearm its forces in southern Lebanon before the full-scale stabilization force can be put in place.

The official said "the idea has some validity" and was part of the mix of discussions at the UN and between the various capitals.

McCormack cautioned that there remained a number of key issues to resolve before the ceasefire resolution would be ready.

"There's still a lot of conversations to be had, but we are working very closely and very well with our friends and allies on this, and we hope to have action in the United Nations this week, if not in the coming days," he said.

McCormack also sought to counter reports that France had torpedoed planned talks this week in New York on the composition of the eventual stabilization force for southern Lebanon, saying the US agreed with a postponement of that meeting.

"We actually support the idea of postponing that meeting that was going to be held tomorrow," he said.

"We think now the focus should be -- and is -- on coming up with that initial resolution. We can have a discussion at the expert level about the specifics of generating this force at some point down the line," he said.

Reports from the UN had blamed the postponement of the meetings on a French boycott.

Beirut 03-08-2006
The Daily Star

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