U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Saturday launched a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing about a cease-fire in Lebanon as the United States struggled to prevent other governments from undercutting American influence in the Middle East.
The peace efforts took place as fighting in southern Lebanon spread to the highways, with Israeli gunboats firing cannons at civilian cars on the country’s main coastal road.
Undaunted by 10 days of Israeli air attacks and artillery barrages, Hezbollah fighters launched 72 Katyusha rockets in 24 hours at northern Israel, U.N. officials said.
“There is no sign of a cease-fire here,” said Hassan Siklawi, a U.N. worker barred by intense Israeli shelling from reaching two isolated villages in southern Lebanon with humanitarian supplies.
Christopher arrived in the Syrian capital on a day when President Hafez Assad was also welcoming to town senior officials from France and Italy, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
Most of the other governments represented here were pursuing their own agendas for bringing about a cease-fire. U.S. officials acknowledged, for example, that French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette is putting forth a peace plan independent of the American proposal - one that would reportedly require an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Christopher and his aides made little effort to hide their irritation that the United States will have to fight to maintain center stage in the diplomacy.
“The United States, we believe, has the capability to put together a cease-fire because of our credibility in the region,” said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. A U.S. official distributed to reporters a quote from Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, saying that of all would-be peacemakers, the United States is “the one with the real power.”
While Iran is considered Hezbollah’s chief international sponsor, the Islamic militant organization’s freedom to operate in Lebanon is due to Syria, which controls its smaller neighbor. An estimated 35,000 Syrian troops are garrisoned in Lebanon, and Assad is considered key to any peace deal there.
On Saturday, U.N. peacekeeping troops counted 500 shell explosions and 80 bombs or rockets dropped by the Israeli air force over the green countryside from which Hezbollah has been launching its rockets into northern Israel.
But the most dramatic escalation was the cannon fire from two Israeli missile boats, directed at an exposed three-mile strip of coastal highway between the small beach town of Rmaile and Sidon, a provincial capital and sprawling port 20 miles south of Beirut.
At least three people in southern Lebanon died in Israeli air attacks Saturday, police and military officials said. They included a school principal killed in an air raid and two Lebanese soldiers whose outpost was hit by air-to-surface missiles.
No casualties were reported in Israel from Saturday’s Katyusha attacks, but some buildings were damaged when rockets fell in the northern coastal town of Nahariya.
Since “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” as the Israeli military campaign is known, began April 11, 460 Katyusha rockets have been fired by the Hezbollah fighters.
The fighting has killed at least 136 and wounded more than 300 on both sides, according to Lebanese, U.N. and Israeli figures. Most of the casualties were Lebanese civilians.