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U.S. Says It’s ‘deeply Disturbed’ About Situation in South Lebanon

In its first critical words directed at Israel since the start of Israel’s bombing campaign in southern Lebanon, the United States said Wednesday that it was “deeply disturbed” about the situation in Lebanon and the refugee problem resulting from it.

Both Israel and Hezbollah fighters should “take all necessary stops to end the fighting,” State Department spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters Wednesday.

The United States called on Israel to end its air and artillery bombardments, and on Hezbollah and other “terrorist groups” to end their attacks. McCurry said “military activities directed against all civilians should also stop.”

Earlier in the week, the administration had seemed to put much of the blame for the violence on the fundamentalist Hezbollah, which had been responsible for killing seven Israeli soldiers in the last few weeks.

The change in the administration’s tone Wednesday drew expressions of concern from Jewish groups.

“We are concerned by administration statements implying equal responsibility by Israel and the Hezbollah terrorists for the current conflict in Lebanon,” the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement issued late Wednesday.

Pointing out that Israel “has no designs on Lebanon,” the umbrella group said that it is “important that the U.S. make clear that it understands Israel’s actions in confronting the Islamic terrorist groups, in order to defend its borders and its people.

“At the same time,” the group continued, “Syria must be held accountable as the controlling force in the area where Hezbollah operates.”

TROUBLED BY STATEMENTS ON SYRIA

Jewish groups said they were troubled that President Clinton had praised Syria on Tuesday for exercising restraint in the current crisis.

“We are mystified and concerned that President Clinton, instead of condemning Syria for permitting the terrorists to attack Israel, actually praised Syria for showing ‘commendable restraint’ in the current situation,” the American Zionist Movement said in a statement Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Clinton appeared to change his position somewhat by saying he thought Syria “could do more” to contribute to an end to the violence in Lebanon.

“I think that Syria should go from showing restraint to being an active participant to try to stop the fighting,” the president said.

The United States is clearly eager to work to contain the current outbreak of violence in southern Lebanon so that it does not further harm the deadlocked Middle East peace process.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who cut short a trip to Asia to discuss the crises in the Middle East and in Bosnia-Herzegovina with Clinton, has been talking to Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian leaders, in an attempt to end the fighting.

McCurry said there were no changes in the secretary’s planned trip to the region, which had been scheduled for July 31 through Aug. 4.

The trip was planned in order to push Israel and its negotiating partners — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians — toward progress in the peace talks.

But the fighting in Lebanon and the refugee exodus stemming from it are threatening to overshadow any progress Christopher could achieve during his mission.

The Conference of Presidents has been in telephone contact with Clinton administration officials to discuss the situation in Lebanon, Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman, said Wednesday.

A group of Arab American leaders met Wednesday with Martin Indyk, the National Security Council’s top Middle East specialist.

In addition, Arab American groups have held rallies outside the Israeli Embassy this week, protesting Israel’s actions in Lebanon.

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