BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there was an urgent need for a sustainable ceasefire in Lebanon but there was no easing in the fighting on Monday between Hizbollah guerrillas and Israeli forces.
Israeli soldiers battled Hizbollah fighters and warplanes pounded southern Lebanon on Monday as the Israeli army pushed north from the Lebanese border village of Maroun al-Ras.
Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a newspaper interview that Israeli attacks would not halt the group's rocket fire, which struck deep inside Israel at the weekend.
On a mission to avert full-scale war in the Middle East, Rice said there was an "urgent" need for a ceasefire in southern Lebanon 13 days into the crisis, but conditions had to be right.
"It is very important to establish conditions under which a ceasefire can take place. We believe that a ceasefire is urgent," Rice told reporters as she flew to the Middle East late on Sunday.
"It is important to have conditions that will make it also sustainable."
The United States has resisted calls for an immediate ceasefire, saying any cessation of hostilities must address the root causes of the conflict, which Washington blames on Hizbollah and its allies, Syria and Iran.
Israel has said it would be willing to back a temporary international force in south Lebanon to ensure Hizbollah is removed from the border and to take control of Lebanon's border with Syria.
"Any Israeli incursion will not have political results unless it achieves any of the announced goals, most importantly to stop the bombardment of Zionist settlements ... and I assure you that this goal will not be achieved," Nasrallah told Lebanon's As-Safir daily.
Civilians have taken the brunt of the 12-day-old conflict that has cost 370 lives in Lebanon and 37 in Israel, prompting U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland to demand a halt to the violence to allow aid to reach the hardest-hit areas.
SOUTH LEBANON POUNDED
Israel's Ynet news website said Israeli forces had reached the edge of Bint Jbeil, a stronghold of the Shi'ite Muslim group around 4 km north of the border.
Israel has been carrying out pin-point operations against Hizbollah positions just inside Lebanon but it was not immediately possible to verify how far its forces had reached.
Israeli warplanes pounded south Lebanon in the early hours of Monday, wounding six people, including one child, at a Palestinian refugee camp in the port city of Tyre.
The Israeli army said it had seized two Hizbollah guerrillas during fighting in Maroun al-Ras. Hizbollah has not confirmed the capture of any fighters but if true, they would be the first prisoners taken in Lebanon since the outbreak of violence following Hizbollah's July 12 capture of two Israeli troops.
The cross-border raid prompted Israel to launch a military campaign that also targeted civilian installations across Lebanon. It coincided with an offensive in the Palestinian territories to retrieve another soldier captured on June 25 and stop Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.
Israel bombed buildings in Gaza on Monday which it said were used by militants to launch rocket attacks on the Jewish state.
Heavy Israeli bombardment of villages around the port city of Tyre killed one civilian and wounded three on Monday, a day after nine civilians were killed and 100 wounded in Israeli air strikes.
Two people were killed and 20 wounded when Hizbollah rockets hit houses and vehicles in Haifa, Israel's third largest city. About 50 people were wounded in similar attacks in at least 10 other towns across northern Israel.
Israel has called up thousands of reserve soldiers and has assembled troops and tanks on its northern border, but the army said its chief, Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, had not decided whether to launch a major ground incursion.
During her visit, Rice is set to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, before discussing the Lebanon crisis with European and Arab officials meeting in Rome on Wednesday. She has also expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, pressed President George W. Bush to work for a ceasefire and the start of a prisoner exchange between Hizbollah and Israel.
Hizbollah has said it wants to exchange the two soldiers with Lebanese and Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, and Nasrallah, whose whereabouts are unknown, said the group would not object if the Beirut government were to negotiate the swap.
Olmert said the proposed multinational force would assist the Lebanese army, and would be charged with disarming Hizbollah in line with U.N. Security Council resolution 1559.
It would be hard to deploy any such a force in the mainly Shi'ite Muslim south without the consent of Hizbollah, which says it will keep its weapons.
U.N. peacekeepers have patrolled the south since Israel first invaded Lebanon in 1978, but their mission to help restore Lebanese government authority in the area remains unfulfilled.
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