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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

World Leaders Seek Solution to Mideast Crisis

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israeli fighters and bombers pummeled Lebanese infrastructure Monday, setting Beirut's port ablaze and hitting a Hezbollah stronghold in attacks that killed at least 17 people. Hezbollah retaliated by firing rockets that flew farther into Israel than ever before.

The rockets landed in the town of Atlit, about 55 kilometers south of the border and some 10 kilometers south of Israel's 3rd-largest city, Haifa. Nobody was hurt in the Monday attack, but Hezbollah rockets killed eight people in Haifa on Sunday.

Lebanese security officials said the death toll from the conflict had risen to more than 200 -- 196 in Lebanon, according to the officials, and 24 in Israel.

Israeli officials accused Syria and Iran of providing Lebanese guerrillas with sophisticated weapons, saying the missiles that hit Haifa had greater range and heavier warheads than those Hezbollah had fired before.

World leaders called for the deployment of international forces to stop Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon from firing rockets into Israel, and the European Union said it was considering sending troops.

"The blunt reality is that this violence is not going to stop unless we create the conditions for the cessation of violence," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said after talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the margins of the Group of Eight summit.

Blair told reporters he envisaged a force that was larger than the current UN force of some 2,000 troops. He also said that without a cease-fire first, international forces would find it difficult to make an impact.

President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would decide whether to contribute troops only after the UN Security Council had endorsed the proposal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was not on Germany's agenda to send troops, and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said his country was ready to contribute to an international force in a "significant way" if there was a Security Council mandate.

French President Jacques Chirac said it was essential to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1559 -- which calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah and other militias in Lebanon. He cautioned, however, that "coercion" might be needed to enforce the resolution.

France has moved aggressively to protect its more than 20,000 citizens in Lebanon, some 17,000 of them permanent residents of the country. It sent military planes and vessels and, since Sunday, has provided ferry service to Cyprus, officials said. Commercial flights will take evacuees on to France. A maritime vessel capable of carrying 1,800 people also is being sent to the region.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin met with his Lebanese counterpart Fuad Saniora in Beirut late Monday to express support and solidarity to the Lebanese. Villepin said his country proposed a monitoring mission to help the Lebanese government spread its authority throughout its territory, including the Hezbollah-dominated south. He also said an end to the bloodshed in Lebanon must include the release of two captured Israeli soldiers and a halt to Hezbollah and Israeli attacks.

France is not the only country moving to evacuate people from Lebanon. Britain airlifted almost 80 people Monday and sent four ships to the region for a potential mass evacuation as Israel continued to bombard the country.

British Foreign office minister Kim Howells said the evacuation of some 12,000 British nationals and some 10,000 dual nationals would be an operation on a scale not seen since the 1940 evacuation of more than 300,000 troops from Dunkirk and the surrounding beaches. A mass evacuation could begin within the next few days.

Annan appealed to Israel to abide by international law and spare civilian lives and infrastructure. The comments by Blair and Annan came a day after world leaders forged a unified response at their G8 summit to the crisis in the Middle East, blaming Hezbollah and Hamas for the escalating violence and recognizing Israel's right to defend itself -- although they called on the Jewish state to show restraint.

(AP, Reuters)