Israel to keep up attack, Olmert vows


JERUSALEM -- As Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon for a sixth consecutive day, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed Israel will continue to "target every terrorist" in its military campaign, even as international diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis took on a new intensity.

In St. Petersburg, where the G8 summit wrapped up, leaders discussed an international peacekeeping force called for by Britain and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to restore stability in southern Lebanon.

U.S. officials announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would take a trip to the Middle East to help defuse the situation, although the timing was not confirmed.

Significantly, Mr. Olmert -- addressing the Israeli Knesset for the first time since the conflict began July 12 after Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight other soldiers in a cross-border attack -- did not call outright for the dismantling of Hezbollah.

Instead, he demanded the militant organization's expulsion from the south, suggesting that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis may be making headway.

However, he warned the world his country's military operation will continue until two Israeli soldiers being held captive are returned and the Lebanese army is deployed in southern Lebanon to stop Hezbollah's attacks.

"We are entitled to our freedom, and when necessary, we know how to fight for it and defend it," Mr. Olmert said. "We are at a national moment of truth. Will we consent to living under the threat of this axis of evil or will we mobilize our inner strength and show determination and equanimity?"

Britain and Mr. Annan advocated that the Security Council send a multilateral security mission to the area.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and a UN delegation are separately trying to mediate an end to the crisis, which by nightfall yesterday had claimed the lives of more than 200 Lebanese and 24 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Crude oil prices, which soared as the crisis deepened, fell more than 2 per cent on hopes of a diplomatic break in the confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah.

In Lebanon, hundreds of European citizens were removed by ship and helicopter and thousands of Lebanese continued to flee the south, the roads jammed with suitcase-laden cars.

Overnight yesterday, the Israeli air force bombed more than 50 targets; among the reported strikes were the main Beirut-Damascus highway and other roads near the Syrian border, the Beirut harbour and another fuel storage tank at Beirut's already-closed airport. An attempt to hit a reported Hezbollah site in southern Lebanon missed and hit a house, killing two, while an afternoon strike on a bridge near the southern city of Sidon killed 10 civilians, including two children.

Israeli military sources reported they had destroyed an Iranian-made Zelzal rocket with a range of up to 200 kilometres, which they believe was capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Such a hit would be a major psychological blow to Israelis; though Tel Aviv has been hit by suicide bombers, so far its residents have been isolated from both Qassam attacks from Gaza and Hezbollah's Katyushas.

Israeli ground forces also briefly moved into southern Lebanon early yesterday, but left again after attacking Hezbollah bases near the border. The attacks late Sunday and early yesterday killed at least 17 people and injured 53, Lebanese police told news agencies.

Hezbollah guerrillas, meanwhile, fired more than 80 rockets into Israel between late Sunday night and late yesterday, with rockets landing for the first time in the town of Atlit -- 10 kilometres south of Haifa and 55 kilometres from the northern border -- as well as in and around Haifa, Safed, Tiberias and the Arab-Israeli village of Sakhnin. Israeli authorities closed Haifa's port; the city is also home to an oil refinery and petrochemical plants. Of the nearly 40 people reported injured, only one was in serious condition.

Thirteen of the injured were soldiers who suffered smoke inhalation after a rocket landed in western Galilee.

In a press conference with Mr. Annan, who called on Israel to abide by international humanitarian law, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the bombardment from southern Lebanon has to stop before Israel can be expected to cease its attacks.

A senior Canadian government official said the presence of five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- France, China, Russia, the United States and Britain -- at the G8 summit suggested wide acceptance of the peacekeeping plan, and said Mr. Annan has accepted the leaders' statement as a "good basis" for moving forward. But the United States and Israel have both expressed some reservations about it.

The United Nations already has a peacekeeping force of about 2,000 troops to monitor the Israeli-Lebanese border. A new force would likely have a much wider mandate.

The Canadian official said Canada has not yet determined if it would be involved if an international peacekeeping force is approved.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also backed away from his earlier use of the world "measured" to describe the Israeli use of force in Lebanon, following the deaths of eight Canadians in an Israeli missile attack.

"Obviously we continue to urge Israel and others to minimize civilian damage," he told the closing G8 conference.

Israel has expressed "deep sorrow" over the deaths, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has assured Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay of co-operation in evacuation efforts.

"Prior to Israel's armed actions in such areas, Israel has consistently called upon Lebanese civilians to vacate those locations with a view to avoid their coming into harm's way. Regrettably, and tragically, some people did not heed those warnings," the Israeli embassy to Canada said in a statement.