Annan, Rice intensify diplomatic efforts to end conflict in Lebanon

Mideast peace efforts intensified Monday, with Kofi Annan saying he'll attempt to broker a ceasefire deal and Condoleezza Rice making a surprise visit to Beirut.

Diplomatic efforts to end hostilities in Lebanon intensifiedMondaywith theUN secretary general saying he's going to Rome to try to broker a peace deal, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makinga surprise visit to Beirut.

Kofi Annan said he will attend the international conference inItaly Wednesdaywhere he hopes a peace plan will be established that includes a ceasefire,the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah and the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon.

"There are many ideas being put forward. I have my own ideas. The Americans have ideas. The Egyptians have put forward proposals and I'm sure by the time we get to Rome, others will come forward with ideas," Annan said.

Annan said it's important that "we don't walk away empty-handed and once again dash the hopes of those caught in this conflict."

Rice will also attend the summit in Rome, alongwith foreign ministers from Israel, Lebanon,the European Union, the United Nations and a number of Arab states.

Rice, who is ona diplomatic missionto the Mideast,was in Beirutto meet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks.

Siniora said he was pleased Rice decided to visit Lebanon and his government would like to "put an end to the war that is being inflicted on Lebanon."

But he also toldRice that Israel's bombardment was taking his country "backwards 50 years" and called for a "swift ceasefire," his office said.

The area around Beirut and southern Lebanon has been pounded since July 12, when Israel began conducting air strikes, set up a naval blockade and sent troops and tanks across the border. The offensive began after Hezbollah militants — who are based in southern Lebanon and have long been launching periodic rocket attacks across the border into Israel — conducted a cross-border raid and attacked an Israeliarmy post, killing eight soldiers and capturing two others.

Yet even though the fighting had, as of Monday, killed 381 people in Lebanon and driven an estimated 600,000 people from their homes, the Lebanese government hasordered its military not to respond to Israeli military actions.

U.S. administration officials told the Associated Press that Rice's visit was designed to show U.S. support for the Lebanese government and its people.

President George W. Bush and hisadministration have repeatedly asserted thatany ceasefire agreement mustinclude an end to Hezbollah's rocket attacks against Israel, the disarmament of the militants andan assurance that they no longer pose a threat to Israel.

Washington has also made clear that it agrees with Israel's insistence that no ceasefire was possible until its military campaign against Hezbollah was complete.

Washington will work with Syria: Rice

While in Beirut, Rice saidWashington was open to the idea of working with Syria to end the crisis — but also said it was up to Damascus to take action.

The Bush administration— and the leaders of a number of other Western countries — have long pointed the finger at Syria and Iran forencouraging Hezbollah's attacks onnorthern Israeli cities and towns.

The two Mideast countries have long been Hezbollah's key supporters, supplying money, weapons and shelter.

Some critics have accused Washington of exacerbating the crisis by refusing to talk with Damascus, but Rice dismissed the accusation as false.

"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians: it's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said.

"I think this is simply just a kind of false hobby horse that somehow it's because we don't talk to the Syrians. It's not as if we don't have diplomatic relations," she told the Associated Press. "We do."

Rice pointed out thattheUnited Stateshas maintaineda diplomatic mission in Syria, which gives Washingtona direct "channel" to the country.

According to diplomats in Cairo, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have begun to put pressure on Syria to stop supporting Hezbollah, even though its other supporter, Iran, is believed to give it much of its money and weapons.

Syria, for its part, indicated on the weekend that it would be willing to enter talks with the United States to helpforge aceasefire. But it has said it wouldonly participate in talks to end the violence if the conditions includethe return of the Golan Heights.

Hope of ceasefire, says Blair

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a plan will emerge over the next few days that he hopes will lead to the end of hostilities in Lebanon.

"There have been, as you might expect over the past few days, enormous diplomatic efforts to get us to the point where I hope at some point within the next few days we can say very clearly what our plan is to bring about an immediate cessation of hostilities," Blair said during a news conference with Iraq's visiting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Blair said the plan stems from his proposal during the meeting of G8 leaders in Russia last week that calls for the end of hostilities, the returnof the captured Israeli soldiers and an international peacekeeping force in south Lebanon to buffer both sides.

Blair also rejected calls by some for him to condemn Israel's militaryresponse in Lebanon. Some critics have complained Israel's response has been disproportionate.

"All of that means absolutely nothing but words unless there's a plan of action in place that can stop the hostilities and then address the long-term underlying causes of instability in that region."

While referring to the situation as a "catastrophe" and theloss of all civilian life as a "tragedy"he blamed Hezbollah for its "deliberate attempt" to destabilize the Israeli/ Lebanon border.

Blair said the only solution to the problems gripping the Mideast is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

With files from the Associated Press