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U S open to NATO-led force in Lebanon - Bolton

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, July 23 (Reuters) The United States is open to a NATO-led force keeping the peace on Lebanon's southern border with Israel, although using U S forces has not been discussed, a senior Bush administration official said today.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said his country could accept a NATO peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to ensure Hizbollah is removed from the border. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had earlier said calls for an international force were premature.

''It's a new idea, we'll certainly take it seriously,'' John Bolton, the U S ambassador to the United Nations, said in a taped interview with CNN's ''Late Edition.'' ''We have been looking carefully at a multinational force perhaps authorized by the Security Council, but not a U N-helmeted force,'' he said.

However, Bolton said at this stage the Bush administration has not contemplated U S troops being part of an international force that tries to restore peace along the Israeli-Lebanon border after 12 days of fierce fighting.

The conflict erupted after Hizbollah crossed the Israeli border and captured two soldiers and killed eight others. Israel responded by pounding Lebanon with air strikes and has conducted some ground assaults in southern Lebanon.

U N emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, who visited Beirut on Sunday, said between half a million and a million people were in need of international assistance in Lebanon.

Egeland said Israel's extensive bombing of Beirut's crowded Haret Hreik neighborhood, where Hizbollah had its headquarters, violated ''humanitarian law.'' U S President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are scheduled to meet later today with Arab allies to discuss efforts to calm the hostilities.

They will meet at the White House with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of its national security council.

Rice is slated to leave today in the evening for Israel and the Palestinian territories and on Wednesday will go to Rome to discuss the crisis with European and Arab officials, including from Lebanon.

A NATO official said there has been no discussion until now of any NATO role. The official cited efforts to expand the existing U N peacekeeping force already in southern Lebanon rather than ''seek to create new structures or engage other institutions.'' U S officials have resisted calls for an immediate ceasefire, arguing that a long-term plan is needed to resolve the conflict, shoring up the Lebanese government and preventing Hizbollah from attacking Israel.

''I think we all need to be creative but we need to keep the idea of the force within the larger long-term political solution,'' Bolton said.

''The main point being to see that Hizbollah does not return to its armed militant capacity threatening Israel and that the institutions of the government of Lebanon cover the whole country,'' he said.

Reuters DKB RS1924

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