JERUSALEM, July 18: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit publicly disagreed Tuesday on the timing of a proposed ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Ms Rice and her visitor held a brief press availability during a meeting in the State Department and were asked about calls for an immediate ceasefire in the region.

Mr Gheit told reporters that “a ceasefire is imperative, and we have to keep working to reach that objective. It is imperative. We have to bring it to an end as soon as possible.”

Ms Rice immediately stated the US position, that a ceasefire was only advisable once the root cause of the fighting — including, in the US view, Hezbollah’s aggression — was addressed.

“We all agree it should happen as soon as possible, when conditions are conducive to do so,” Rice said.

Ms Rice warned that diplomacy aimed at ending the crisis should be targeted at action “that is going to be of lasting value.”

“The Middle East has been through too many spasms of violence, and we have to deal with underlying conditions so that we can create sustainable conditions for political progress there,” Rice said.

“As to my own involvement, I am very deeply involved with my colleagues, with the regional states like Egypt,” Rice said, adding she had spoken with colleagues in the Group of Eight industrialised nations, and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council.

She also said she had talked to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who was preparing to head back to the Middle East after a snap weekend visit to Lebanon.

Ms Rice also declined to set a date for her proposed mission to the Middle East, which the White House confirmed she was planning on Monday.

“When it is appropriate and when it is necessary and will be helpful to the situation, I am more than pleased to go to the region,” Rice said.

Israeli charge: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Hezbollah on Tuesday of coordinating its capture of two Israeli soldiers last week with Iran, enabling Tehran to divert attention away from its nuclear programme.

“Unfortunately this Iranian trick succeeded,” Mr Olmert said in a statement.

“The G8 decision focused on Lebanon and did not deal with the Iranian issue,” he added, referring to a meeting of Group of Eight leaders in St Petersburg where the Lebanon crisis took centre stage.

Mr Olmert reiterated he would not negotiate with Hezbollah and said it was too early to talk about a new international force to stabilise Lebanon.

“The headlines sound good (on the force) but our experience shows this is an idea without any basis ... I want to be cautious on this issue and it seems to me that it’s too early to discuss it,” he added.

Paraphrasing Mr Olmert, the statement, issued by his office, added: “The prime minister said the timing of the attacks in the north was not by chance and was coordinated with Iran with the aim of diverting international attention from the Iranian issue.”—AFP/Reuters

Updated Jul 19, 2006 12:00am

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