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By Adam Entous

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, July 23 (Reuters) Israel is prepared to accept the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to ensure Hizbollah is removed from its border, diplomats said today.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had initially brushed aside the proposed peacekeeping force as premature.

Israel's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on any possible change in the government's position.

Western diplomats said Israel was seeking assurances from European powers that the international force would be given a clear mandate and sufficient firepower to keep Hizbollah out of a yet-to-be-defined security zone along the Lebanese border.

Israel was also seeking commitments that Hizbollah would be prevented from re-arming and that the Lebanese army, with international help, would begin to disarm the guerrilla group.

''We want them disarmed but we understand that will take time,'' an Israeli government source said.

Ministers from France, Germany and Britain plan to discuss details of the proposed force with Israeli officials today diplomats said.

''They will be discussing what kinds of powers and mandate it will have,'' a European diplomat said.

Another European diplomat, close to the deliberations, said Olmert came around to the idea of a peacekeeping force because ''the Israelis have realised that they are not able to completely crush Hizbollah'' and have no plans to reoccupy southern Lebanon.

Israel's Army Radio quoted Defence Minister Amir Peretz as telling German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that he did not rule out the deployment of an international force if it was able to exercise authority over Hizbollah.

Western diplomats said Israel favoured a NATO operation over a U N-led force. Israel has sharply criticised the existing U N peacekeeping force in south Lebanon as a ''failure''.

In addition to a new peacekeeping force, Western powers are considering stationing international monitors at Lebanese border crossings and ports to try to prevent Hizbollah from bringing in rockets to replace those that have been destroyed by Israel.

Israeli attacks aimed at Hizbollah have killed some 358 Lebanese, most of them civilians, since the guerrilla group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

A total of 37 Israelis have died, 17 of them civilians killed by Hizbollah rockets rained on the north of the country.


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