Israel pushes into Lebanon

By David Clarke
Tue Aug 1, 2006 3:01 PM ET

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israeli forces thrust into southern Lebanon on Tuesday in an expansion of their offensive, pounding towns and villages but meeting fierce resistance from Hizbollah guerrillas.

Three weeks after the war erupted when Hizbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, Israel's security cabinet agreed to step up its offensive, entailing a ground sweep 6-7 km (4 miles) into Lebanon, a political source said. Arab TV networks said three Israeli soldiers were killed.

Israel also said it would resume full air strikes in Lebanon early on Wednesday at the end of a partial, 48-hour suspension.

But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has rejected international calls for an immediate halt to hostilities, said he saw signs of movement toward a ceasefire and that Hizbollah had suffered heavy losses -- comments that appeared to prepare the ground for an end to fighting.

"We are at the beginning of a political process that in the end will bring a ceasefire under entirely different conditions than before," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged major powers to patch up differences on the crisis and rescheduled a meeting of potential contributors for an international force for Thursday. It had been scheduled for Monday but was postponed.

European Union foreign ministers called for an immediate end to hostilities, watering down demands for an immediate ceasefire at the insistence of Britain and other close U.S. allies.

A joint statement adopted at a rare August crisis meeting of the 25-nation bloc said: "The Council calls for an immediate end to hostilities to be followed by a sustainable ceasefire."

Israel's army said it had warned residents north of Lebanon's Litani river to leave the area, suggesting air raids could target areas further north than most previous strikes. Three civilians were killed and three wounded in an air strike southeast of Sidon, security sources said.

"We have so far now about six efforts running inside Lebanon ... brigade size or even bigger than brigade size efforts in each one of them," Israeli Brigadier General Shuki Shahur said. An Israeli brigade is usually made up of 1,000 troops or more.

At least 620 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon. The health minister put the toll at 750 including bodies buried under rubble. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed.

The southern Lebanese village of Qana mourned the deaths of at least 54 civilians, including 37 children, killed in an Israeli air strike on Sunday that sparked global outrage and fueled international calls for a ceasefire.

"All those killed had no shrapnel or wounds on their bodies. They all died of suffocation. The debris fell on them -- their color was blue," said Red Cross volunteer Bassam Mokdad. "If I had been able to arrive earlier, I could've found people alive."

Israeli artillery shells crashed down on the border area around the Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab, where Hizbollah said it had destroyed a tank in battles with Israeli troops.

Al Arabiya television said three Israeli soldiers died there. They would be the first army fatalities since Israel lost nine soldiers on July 26. Hizbollah said it had inflicted 35 casualties in house-to-house battles at Aita al-Shaab.

Israel's justice minister said about 300 of an estimated 2,000 Hizbollah fighters had been killed so far, and the tourism minister later said 400 had been killed. Hizbollah, which says it does not hide its dead, has announced 43 deaths in that period and said the Israeli statements were false.

"I reckon the time required for the (army) to complete the job, and by that I mean that the area in which we want the international force to deploy is cleansed of Hizbollah, will take around 10 days to two weeks," Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio.

Israel wants to push Hizbollah back and stop it firing rockets over the border. However, an Israeli minister said there was no way its forces could destroy all the missiles, comments apparently aimed at lowering Israeli public expectations.

Israel has rejected calls for a truce as world powers differ over the urgency of halting the war.

Most Arab and European governments have insisted on an immediate end to fighting but Israel's closest ally, the United States, has said any ceasefire must be part of a broader deal that ends the threat to the Jewish state from Hizbollah.

The U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping will chair Thursday's session on an international stabilization force.

France, tipped to lead the new force, said it must be bigger than the 10,000 troops suggested by Annan, be sufficiently well armed and have precise guidelines when it comes to opening fire.

Israeli aircraft bombed eastern Lebanon near Syria on the second day of what it had said would be a 48-hour partial halt to air strikes, Lebanese security sources and witnesses said.

The raids were aimed at "preventing the transferring of weaponry" to Hizbollah, the army said. Israel had said it would use air strikes against Hizbollah and to back ground forces.