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Rice To Return To Mideast

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, after conferring with her aides, said Friday she will return to the Middle East to work with others on trying to bring an end to the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting, but did not say when.

"I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there," Rice told a news conference here, where she has been attending a conference on Asian issues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't provide a precise time for her return to the Middle East where diplomats are working to reach a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.

Friday, Lebanese officials said Israeli warplanes struck three buildings in southern Lebanon, in renewed attacks on suspected Hezbollah targets. The officials say three people were killed and nine wounded, including four children.

Thursday, Lebanese Health Minister Muhammed Jawad Khalifeh said as many as 600 civilians are believed to have been killed in the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, with 382 confirmed dead and the rest either known to be buried under the rubble of buildings or missing.

The confirmed civilian deaths adds to tolls released by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah guerrillas, which are not included in the ministry's count, would bring the confirmed total to at least 437 killed in the campaign.

The 382 figure is known because the bodies have arrived at hospitals, according to Khalifeh.

Police reports to the ministry say another 58 are known to be buried under the rubble of buildings wrecked in Israeli strikes, he said. "We have reports of around 150 people gone missing," he said.

"We believe around 600 people are dead," he said. He did not elaborate on why the missing are presumed dead.

The estimated toll would be a large jump over previous Health Ministry reports of 377 civilians killed.

The Health Ministry count does not include 20 soldiers the Lebanese army has confirmed dead or 35 guerrillas whose deaths Hezbollah has acknowledged.

Israel says more than 100 Hezbollah fighters have been killed, but in most cases slain guerrillas, particularly those at the front killed in ground battles, would not be taken to hospitals covered in the ministry count.

Fifty-two Israelis have been killed in 16 days of fighting, including 33 soldiers and 19 civilians who died in Hezbollah rocket attacks into northern Israel.

Lebanese security and rescue officials have frequently reported being unable to reach or clear rubble from homes and buildings destroyed by Israeli bombardment, usually because heavy equipment cannot move to the site for fear of continued Israeli strikes or because workers are busy evacuating wounded.

In other developments:

  • Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader warned in a new videotape Thursday that the terrorist group would not stand idly by while Israeli bombardments "burn our brothers" in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In the message broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, al-Zawahiri said al Qaeda now saw "all the world as a battlefield open in front of us."
  • The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a weak statement Thursday expressing shock and distress at Israel's bombing of a U.N. post on the Lebanon border that killed four unarmed military observers but no condemnation.
  • Israel has ordained its own destruction by invading Lebanon, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday, according to the state news agency. Addressing the clerical staff of the Friday prayer sermons in Tehran, Ahmadinejad said Israel and its supporters "should know that they cannot end the business that they have begun."
  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to say Thursday there could be an "imminent solution" for the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants nearly five weeks ago. Later, both a Hamas spokesman and a Fatah legislator denied it, and the Associated Press found that the translator at the Rome news conference had made a mistake.
  • reports from Beirut there is a growing humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, with thousands of people living in city parks because their homes have been destroyed or they fear further Israeli bombardments.
  • Americans generally approve of President Bush's handling of the latest Mideast crisis, but 60 percent think world leaders don't respect Mr. Bush, a CBS News/N.Y. Times poll finds. Also, most are pessimistic about the prospects for Mideast peace.

    Israel's government decided Thursday not to expand its battle with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon for now, but authorized the army to call up 30,000 reserve soldiers in case the fighting intensified.

    With Hezbollah allies Iran and Syria reportedly meeting in Damascus to discuss the crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was "willing and ready" to return to the region to work for a sustainable peace agreement.

    But U.S. President George W. Bush suggested he would support the offensive for as long as it would take to cripple Hezbollah. He also sharply condemned Iran for supporting the group.

  • The events signaled that Israel and the United States were settling in for a much longer battle than had initially been expected, one that could grow far bloodier if Israel decides its air attacks and small-scale invasion into Lebanon is not working and sends in thousands of more ground forces.

    Israel's security Cabinet authorized the army to call up three additional reserve divisions to refresh the troops in Lebanon if they were needed, but rejected the generals' advice to expand the offensive.

    Israeli airstrikes on southern Lebanon on Thursday struck roads and houses, many believed to be the deserted homes of Hezbollah activists, in the apple-growing region of Iqlim al-Tuffah. The strikes caused casualties, but fighting kept ambulances and civil defense crews from the areas, security officials and witnesses said.

    Other strikes hit a Lebanese army base in the north, while artillery and warplanes pounded the area near the border, according to witnesses. However, the fierce ground battles that raged Wednesday through the border villages of Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras appeared to have abated, with U.N. observers reporting only "sporadic fighting" there.

    Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the strategic damage to Hezbollah was "enormous" and vowed that the group would "not return to what it was."

    Despite the Israeli offensive, the guerrillas managed to shoot 110 rockets into Israel on Thursday, lightly wounding 20 people and bringing the total of rockets launched to 1,564.

    The army broadcast a warning on its Arabic-language radio station Thursday telling Lebanese in the south that their villages would be "totally destroyed" if rockets were fired from them.

    But Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, said Israel would never be able to crush the group militarily, and should stop fighting and start talking.

    "Whatever it (Israel) does it's not going to reach its goal," he told The Associated Press. "They're not going to be able to take out the weaponry of Hezbollah. So all they're doing is massive destruction."

    In Damascus, Syrian and Iranian officials gathered to hold meetings on the crisis, according to Iranian and Kuwaiti news reports. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah was also to take part in the meeting as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Kuwait's Al-Siyassah newspaper, known for its opposition to the Syrian regime.

    The newspaper said the meeting was designed to discuss ways to maintain supplies to Hezbollah fighters with "Iranian arms flowing through Syrian territories."

    Syria's hardly shy about its friendship with Hezbollah (Assad and Nasrallah are all smiles on posters all over town). But a senior government official Thursday insisted the guerilla leader's reported visit here was "fantasy," reports CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.

    For more than a week now, Assad has seen envoys sent to Syria by Hezbollah's other sponsor, Iranian president Ahmedinejad.

    And while the United States says both those countries have "leading roles" in the Lebanon conflict, Washington's not talking to either of them face to face, Roth reports.

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