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Annan: Lebanon en route to 'humanitarian disaster'

U.S. rejects calls for a cease-fire, calling it a 'false promise'

From Elise Labott
CNN

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U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says he fears a "major humanitarian disaster."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If there is no cessation of violence in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict and innocent Lebanese people continue to be killed or displaced, "I'm afraid of a major humanitarian disaster," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

"I hope that we move forward in the next day or two, things will crystallize, and that the parties will be prepared to do this," Annan told CNN's Larry King in an interview broadcast Friday. "Otherwise, Larry, I'm afraid of a major humanitarian disaster."

So far, Annan said, 500,000 Lebanese have been displaced in the country, and another 150,000 have crossed the border into Syria.

"With the destruction of the bridges and the infrastructure, it is extremely difficult to even get to the ground to assess how many people need help and how we are going to get it to them," he said.

On Thursday, similar remarks from Annan were interpreted as a call for a cease-fire, something the United States dismissed, but Annan said he had asked for a cessation of violence, not a cease-fire. (Watch as Annan clarifies his position on the crisis -- 4:25)

"If you wish, you can even describe it as a humanitarian truce for us to be able to get assistance to the people and allow us to organize ourselves to move logistics and supplies around and to help access the people," he said.

Annan also said he wanted an international force in Lebanon, which would give the Lebanese government the teeth it needs to enforce U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for disarming Hezbollah.

And while he blamed Hezbollah for sparking the conflict by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12, he said that "the Israeli response has been excessive and disproportionate."

"The extensive bombing of Lebanese civilian infrastructure, of bridges, of the airport, and the blockade imposed on Lebanon, both sea and land, and the destruction of the bridges, making it very difficult for people to move around and eventually going to make it difficult to move in supplies of food, medication and others, is a punishment for the Lebanese people as a whole," Annan said.

If Israel continues, and images of wounded Lebanese continue to be broadcast around the globe, the public will "tend to forget the original sin, the original sin of the kidnapping of the soldiers," he said.

The situation could become even more dire if Israeli ground forces enter Lebanon in force, he added. (Watch the conflict's origins -- 2:06)

'Little disagreement'

Annan said he spoke with the Israeli prime minister several times about the need to spare civilians and infrastructure. He also spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, and "there's very little disagreement between us."

Rice, who will travel next week to the Middle East and Europe over the crisis in Lebanon, said Friday that a quick cease-fire "will be a false promise if it returns us to the status quo."

She added that Hezbollah is the source of the problem in Lebanon and must be disarmed.

At least 261 people have been killed in Lebanon and 582 wounded in the strikes so far, internal security sources say. Fifteen Israeli civilians and 19 soldiers have died in attacks and fighting, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

"We must work urgently to create the conditions for stability and lasting peace," Rice said. (Watch Rice explain why a cease-fire would constitute a 'false promise' -- 2:37)

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton reiterated that stance in remarks to the Security Council on Friday, saying that a cease-fire at this point would allow the militant group to regroup and plan its next wave of attacks and kidnappings.

Rice will be visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. She will also attend a meeting in Rome, Italy, of Lebanese diplomats.

"It is important to remember that the cause of the current violence was Hezbollah's illegal attack from Lebanese territory," she said. "It is unacceptable to have a situation where the decision of a terrorist group can drag an entire country, even an entire region, into violence."

Rice said Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, had been critical of Hezbollah's "provocation."

'The new Middle East'

"What we're seeing here, in a sense, is the growing -- the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one. "

A framework accompanied by "some kind of international assistance, perhaps significant international assistance" must be created to "push forward" the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and the deployment of Lebanese forces in the south, she said.

Referring to Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming and disbanding militias in Lebanon, she said: "It's now clear why 1559 anticipates a circumstance in which you cannot have people with one foot in politics and one foot in terror."

Hezbollah, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist acts, also operates an extensive network of social services in Lebanon, and its political wing holds seats in the Lebanese parliament.

Rice said the United States is working with Israel to open air and sea humanitarian corridors into Lebanon. U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland said Friday that he is heading to Lebanon to work on that issue, too. (Links to aid groups)

Meanwhile, two congressional Democrats sent a letter to President Bush, asking that a special envoy be appointed to deal with the Israel-Hezbollah situation and to negotiate a settlement that would "prevent a return to the status quo."

"We are growing increasingly concerned that you lack a comprehensive diplomatic strategy to deal with the current crisis in the Middle East," said the letter from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. "Unfortunately, the architecture that you have constructed to deal with the Middle East is not adequate, as it does not allow for the kind of high level and sustained involvement that is required."

A senior administration official, noting Rice's planned visit to the Mideast next week, said, "Our top envoy is being dispatched to the region."

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