Mid-East crisis deepens as diplomats struggle for peace

Violence was yesterday stepped up by both sides in the Middle East conflict, as diplomats in New York tried to reach agreement on a United Nations Security Council resolution to stop the fighting.

Violence was yesterday stepped up by both sides in the Middle East conflict, as diplomats in New York tried to reach agreement on a United Nations Security Council resolution to stop the fighting.

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah fired a massive barrage of 80 rockets into towns in northern Israel, killing at least 11 people, including nine reserve soldiers, in the costliest day for Israel since the crisis began on July 12.

Meanwhile, an Israeli bombardment killed 17 people in southern Lebanon, with some villages facing constant bombing for as long as half an hour, while warplanes fired at least six missiles into the capital Beirut.

Both sides seemed to be taking advantage of what little time remains to them to inflict damage on one another before agreement - expected today or tomorrow - of the draft resolution thrashed out by the US and France, which calls for a "full cessation of hostilities" in the region.

Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday spoke by phone with US President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and was this evening planning to talk to French President Jacques Chirac.

Downing Street said the PM was stressing the need to get the resolution agreed as quickly as possible. He believed events on the ground "made the need to bring about an end to the hostilities even clearer", said a spokeswoman.

Mr Blair has received phone briefings on the humanitarian situation in Lebanon from both Christian Aid and Oxfam over the past two days and will speak to International Development Secretary Hilary Benn about what will need to be done once fighting halts.

He was also briefed by Britain's UN ambassador Sir Emyr Jones Parry and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

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