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Lebanon Conflict Speeds Scramble to Find Peace

Mideast: Hezbollah, Israeli attacks continue amid multinational diplomacy. Christopher, Syria's Assad meet.


DAMASCUS, Syria — 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 U.S. 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.

As if to dramatize the American plight, soon after landing here Christopher found that his scheduled meeting with Assad had to be delayed because the Syrian president was tied up talking to Primakov.

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," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.

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."

Christopher himself, talking to reporters in The Hague on Friday, cited "the particular background that I have, the relationship with the parties"--apparently finding it necessary to point out his long experience as a mediator in the Middle East.

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.

The Israeli boats two miles offshore appeared to fire on any moving vehicle on the highway. Lebanese police said at least 150 rounds were fired.

Warned of the danger by police, very few drivers risked the trip.

"I wouldn't advise it," said one northbound motorist after making it through.

One car was struck and exploded in flames moments after it set off from Rmaile. The occupants escaped and ran into a field for cover, police said. Two other drivers panicked under fire and crashed. A third civilian car was hit, seriously wounding the driver, a Lebanese policeman said.

It was the third day the boats had fired at the road, but Saturday's shooting was more systematic, and it effectively cut off Beirut from the major southern cities of Sidon and Tyre.

Lebanon denounced the shootings, but Israeli officials said the action was necessary to block convoys bringing supplies to Hezbollah fighters.

The firing extended to inland routes. Riding in taxis from Beirut, a group of journalists attempted to evade the coastal guns by taking a detour over narrow mountain roads. But as soon as they began to descend into Sidon, the gunboats fired two volleys at them, forcing them to turn back.

The highway's closure added to the sense of isolation among the estimated 50,000 civilians who have stayed in southern Lebanon despite the warfare washing over their region.

"All I want is for everyone to come back home and we all try to resume our natural life," said car dealer Mohammed Hijaizi, who has been hunkered inside his Tyre apartment building since the outbreak of fighting April 11. "I am tired and sick and disgusted by the life I have to live right now."

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