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U.S. Undersecretary of State Calls for Israel-Hezbollah Cease-fire

July 18, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The State Department estimates 25,000 Americans are in Lebanon, and many of them want to leave, but how to get them out of the war zone? That’s a work in progress.

For an update on the situation there, both logistical and diplomatic, we turn to Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.

Welcome, Mr. Burns.

NICHOLAS BURNS, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Where does the evacuation process stand tonight?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, you’re right. We’ve got well more than 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon. We figure that perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 of them wish to leave and feel insecure, and so what we’re doing is we’re registering all of them with our embassy.

Three hundred and fifty six of them came out today. Several more hundred have come out in previous days because we established an air bridge through the U.S. military from Cyprus into Beirut.

We’ve leased two ships, and we think in the next 24 hours well over 2,000 Americans will be evacuated on those ships from Beirut to Cyprus. They will be protected by American naval vessels. And so it’s a very well-organized effort, but obviously a very chaotic environment on the ground, as you can imagine, for American citizens who find themselves stranded in Lebanon.

GWEN IFILL: There is a perception among American citizens apparently on the ground from reports there, as well as here in the United States, that the United States has been more slow, has been slower than other nations in getting its citizens out. Is there anything to that?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I don’t think so. I’m sorry that that perception is out there, because I can tell you we are working 24/7 on this. We have a 24-hour task force here. We have people who we’ve sent to both Cyprus and Lebanon to help American citizens.

I think there’s a different quality to the issue. A lot of European countries have citizens in Lebanon who were there, frankly, as tourists or short-term visitors.

The great majority of Americans who live in Lebanon are dual-citizens. They carry two passports. They obviously feel more comfortable in Lebanon. They are embedded in the society there.

So a great number of Americans, probably the majority, are going to choose not to leave, because perhaps they’re not in Beirut, they’re in safe parts of the country. But for those Americans who wish to leave, we will do everything in our power to help them leave.

We have a very well-organized effort through our American embassy and Ambassador Jeff Feltman. And I think you will see, having established the air bridge over the last couple of days — and we were the first to do that of any country — we now have these two big ships coming in. And you’ll see lots of Americans get to safety in Cyprus in the coming day or two.

Finding a way out of Lebanon

GWEN IFILL: If you are an American who's living in Lebanon but not in Beirutand you don't have the money or the resources to get you to Beirut, will the American government come getyou?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, what we're telling Americans in thatsituation, if they're in a dangerous area of Lebanon, if they have a computer, They can contact us there. If they have a telephone, they cancontact us through phone.

We have a limited ability, of course, given the situation,to send American personnel to distant parts of the country, just given the factthere's so much violence. But, obviously, if an American citizen feelsstranded, we will find a way to help that American citizen. We're not going toleave anyone in an unprotected position.

GWEN IFILL: And there has been some question raised todayabout who pays for these evacuations. There's a United States senator tonightintroducing a bill that would force the government to pay for theseevacuations. What is the policy on that?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, first of all, Gwen, we're not going toask people for money as they get on ships to leave in a state of some duressfrom Lebanon, but American government practice over the last several decadeshas been that, if there's an evacuation such as this, and there's a cruise shipor an airliner that takes people out, people commit to pay the commercial rateat some later date, not at the time.

A commercial airfare, in this case, from Beirutto Cyprus,that provision has been in practice for a long time. It can sometimes bewaived. I can certainly understand the point of view of members of Congressthat it seems a bit odd to be talking about money at a time like this.

And so, believe me, we're not going to be asking Americancitizens to pay before they leave. If people don't have the money, that's fine.We will put them on these ships because their safety is our first priority.

The fundamental responsibility of our government and ourState Department to Americans overseas is to help them. And we're putting anenormous effort into helping American citizens in Lebanon. I think we've beeneffective, and you'll see a major effort in the next 24 hours to get severalthousand people out.

Plans to intervene in the crisis

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Undersecretary, on a related issue, Israel'sambassador to the United Nations said this afternoon on one of the cablenetworks that he is expecting Condoleezza Rice, Secretary Rice, to come to theUnited Nations on Thursday and then embark for the region on Friday. Can youconfirm that for us?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I can't confirm those specific plans. Ofcourse, you know that Secretary Rice is considering a trip to the region. Obviously,the United States,given our power and influence in the region, given all of the interests atstake that we have, we are going to be interested in being as helpful as we canto resolve this crisis.

So Secretary Rice is considering when the best time to makethat trip would be, as she said today, but there's no question that what we'vegot to do now -- and there's a surprising degree of unanimity in the worldabout this -- Hezbollah has to act to give up the Israeli soldiers and to stopthe shelling of one million Israelis in northern Israel.

The shelling of places like Haifa,and Tiberius, and Acre, places that haven'tseen this kind of violence in 35 years, is reprehensible. There have been 500to 600 rocket attacks on Israelin the last couple of days.

And as President Bush said today, every country has a rightto defend itself. Hezbollah is the one that broke international law and fourU.N. Security Council resolutions by crossing the blue line and by being theaggressor in this instance.

GWEN IFILL: Does Israelhave to sign off on any U.S.plan to intervene in this?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, Israelis a friend and ally of the United States, and so obviously -- I met with theIsraeli ambassador today. Secretary Rice and the president have been in touchwith the Israeli leadership.

Obviously, we're going to work with Israel, as well as withour friend, Prime Minister Siniora in Lebanon, a person whom we stronglysupport and whose government we want to support, and we'll work with both ofthose governments to try to see if we can bring this situation to stability andthen to peace.

But the real difficulty here is that Hezbollah -- by theway, a terrorist organization that has killed lots of Americans in the past --Hezbollah has decided at this point to instigate a crisis with Israel. Theyhave crossed the border. They've crossed the blue line.

And so it's Israel'sresponsibility to protect itself. It's in the American national interest toexert our strength to see if we can now get Hezbollah to back away from theborder, stop shelling Israel,and return the Israeli soldiers.

And obviously we want to see as soon as possible an end toviolence, because innocent people in Israelare being killed, and, frankly, innocent civilians in Lebanon are the victims ofHezbollah at this point.

Beginnings of a slow process

GWEN IFILL: President Bush said yesterday and again todaythat Syriashould get involved. And we had the Syrian ambassador, Mr. Moustapha, on theprogram last night. And his response was he said it was a simplistic approachand that President Bush thinks that it only suffices for Secretary Annan tocall President Bashar Assad through a telephone conversation and, voila,everything is resolved.

Those were his words. Why is so much pressure being appliedto Syria?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I wish the Syrian ambassador could be moreforthright about what's happening. The Syrian government has been trying tore-supply Hezbollah with Katyusha rockets and Fajr missiles. The Fajr missilesare the longer-range missiles that have been able to hit Haifaand killed nine Israelis there yesterday and the other towns in northern Israel.

Syria has a responsibility to stop arming Hezbollah and touse its direct influence with Sheik Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, to getHezbollah to stop the fighting and to pull back from southern Lebanon so thatwe can then come in with an effort to provide some stability, and where theUnited Nations might be effective, obviously, in thinking through a longer-termsolution.

But until that happens, until Syria and Iran stop theiroutright support for Hezbollah, then obviously this is going to be a crisisthat's going to be very difficult to resolve.

GWEN IFILL: If you are not speaking directly or you can'tsee eye to eye with Syriaand you can't see eye to eye with Iran, who exactly is going to speakto Hezbollah?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Gwen, I think the problem from ourperspective is not a lack of communication between the United States and Iran. We have diplomatic relationswith Syria.The problem is not communication.

The problem is that these two states are trying todestabilize Lebanon.Syria had a 30-year occupationof Lebanonthat ended last year, negatively for the Syrians.

They're supporting Hezbollah in their terrorist actionsagainst moderate Palestinians, against innocent civilians in Lebanon, as wellas against the state of Israel. Hezbollah is the source of the problem, and thetwo main backers, Syria and Iran, have a lot to answer for.

So we were in St. Petersburg the other day with the G-8countries, and all of the G-8 leaders said in a formal statement the problem iswith Hezbollah and those that support them, Iran and Syria. And it wasremarkable to see that degree of unity among leaders as diverse as the Russianpresident and the Japanese prime minister, the American president.

You're seeing a lot of international pressure -- and fromArab countries as well -- on Syria and Iran to stop the support of Hezbollah,and hopefully it will have some effect in the coming days so that theseinnocent people being killed, so that violence can stop.

GWEN IFILL: The Israelis have said this could take a coupleof weeks. If cease-fire is the eventual goal, but that a prisoner swap has tohappen either before or after or simultaneously, what is the next step that youhave to take, that the U.S. has to take, in order to accomplish that cease-fire,or do you plan to take, I should ask?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, we're in constant contact right now --as a next step, Gwen, I think -- with Kofi Annan, the secretary general of theU.N., with the Arab countries that have some influence, both on Hezbollah aswell as on Iran and Syria.

The first step has to be for Hezbollah to step back fromthis crisis, and to shift its forces back, and to stop the shelling of Israelicivilians. That is the first step.

If that cannot happen, then there is very little reason tobelieve that this crisis can be put to an end anytime soon. The United Statesobviously has an interest here and a responsibility to use our influencewisely. We're doing that.

Secretary Rice has been on the phone several times a dayover the last couple of days, and you'll see us being very active workingtowards peace and stability.

GWEN IFILL: Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, thankyou very much.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you, Gwen.