Israel begins massive ground offensive in south Lebanon

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWhy these photogenic dumplings are popping up in Los AngelesIn far northern Lebanon, Israeli jets blasted a key bridge to Syria, killing at least 12 people, as the conflict for the first time touched the entire length of Lebanon – from skirmishes on the Israeli border in the south to the airstrike on the northern frontier about 105 miles away. It was not immediately clear whether Israel was trying to pressure the U.N. Security Council, which was expected to vote soon on a cease-fire resolution, or whether it was really determined to send troops deeper into Lebanon. Israeli defense officials said Israel was upset about apparent last-minute changes that seemed to weaken the mandate of a multinational force. However, Regev said Israel was still open to a negotiated solution. “Our action does not exclude a diplomatic option. On the contrary, we are following developments in New York closely. But so far diplomacy has not produced concrete results and it is incumbent upon the government to defend its citizens,” Regev said. Earlier, U.N. diplomats had reported progress on the cease-fire plan, with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, saying a vote was possible Friday, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in New York to continue negotiations. JERUSALEM – Israel launched an expanded ground offensive into southern Lebanon Friday after expressing dissatisfaction over an emerging cease-fire deal in the United Nations, government officials said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided on the massive new ground campaign after meeting for several hours, and Olmert’s spokesman told The Associated Press it had begun. A cease-fire deal being worked out by the U.N. Security Council failed to meet Israel’s basic requirements, such as stationing robust international combat troops in southern Lebanon once Israel withdraws, said the spokesman, Asaf Shariv. Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded Hezbollah positions throughout the day Friday in an attempt to gain unchallenged command of strategic high ground and disrupt guerrilla rocket attacks across the border. “We’re working for a vote today. We’re working for a vote today,” she said. One of Rice’s top deputies, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, was in Beirut as part of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah sent another barrage of more than 150 rockets toward northern Israel, it said. Israeli rescue workers said eight people in the port of Haifa were wounded by shrapnel, but they estimated the Hezbollah attack at about 80 missiles by midday. The heaviest fighting continued around Marjayoun, an important hub just north of Israel’s Galilee panhandle that juts into Lebanon. An Associated Press reporter briefly entered the embattled city and saw intense Israeli bombardment of dug-in Hezbollah fighters. The city, which is mostly Christian, gives Israeli gunners a view of the Litani River valley and other areas used as launching grounds for Hezbollah rockets. Israeli tanks rolled into Marjayoun on Thursday after coming under withering Hezbollah ambushes along the way. Hundreds of civilian vehicles joined a convoy escorted by U.N. peacekeepers leaving Marjayoun. The exodus – which was slowed by nearby Israeli shelling – included about 350 Lebanese soldiers and police who were in the city when Israeli forces poured in. The mayor of Marjayoun, Fuad Hamra, told the AP by telephone from the convoy that he blames the Lebanese government for abandoning state institutions in the region. “As of tonight and in the coming days, Marjayoun will be a field for destruction,” he said. By taking Marjayoun, the Israeli army was closer to Beirut than at any time since the fighting began July 12 after a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three. Powerful explosions resounded across Beirut. Local media reported Israeli warplanes hit Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Dahieh suburb. Israel also struck an area close to the Lebanese border crossing at Masnaa in the Bekaa Valley, about 30 miles southeast of Beirut, but there were no reports of casualties. Masnaa is the main crossing into Syria, and the main escape route for hundreds of displaced Lebanese who fled the country over land. In the propaganda war, Israeli planes dropped leaflets over parts of Beirut saying Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is “cheating” the Lebanese and hiding the number of losses among the militiamen. The paper included the names of about 90 fighters Israel said were killed. Israel has imposed a virtual lockdown on traffic across southern Lebanon and key northern routes, seeking to cut off weapon and aid shipments to Hezbollah. The attack on the Abboudiyeh border crossing apparently reflected Israeli fears that Hezbollah was still being supplied via Syria – which is Hezbollah’s main sponsor along with Iran. At least 12 people were killed in the attack on the bridge, spanning the northern border, security officials said. That left the northern coastal road as the only official border crossing to Syria open for those trying to flee war-ravaged Lebanon. At least two other Lebanese civilians were killed in attacks in other parts of the country, officials said. At the same time, Israeli forces were still locked in relentless clashes with guerrillas along the southern border. Hezbollah reported it killed or wounded 15 Israeli soldiers near the border village of Aita al-Shaab. It also said Israeli forces suffered casualties near the southern village of Rachaf. Israel did not immediately release information on battlefield losses. Hezbollah said four of its fighters had been killed, but did not say when or where. The guerrilla group’s Al-Manar TV said Hezbollah fighters hit an Israeli gunboat off Tyre in southern Lebanon, killing or wounding 12 sailors. The Israeli military denied the claim. More than 800 people in Lebanon and Israel have died since fighting erupted – 732 on the Lebanese side and 122 on the Israeli side. At the United Nations, Bolton said the United States and France were nearing a deal on a Security Council resolution. “We are very, very close to an agreement and our aspiration is to have a vote by the end of the afternoon today,” Bolton said. The most serious stumbling block to a deal appeared to be the timing of the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Also at issue is how much more power to give the U.N. force now in southern Lebanon as it helps coordinate the transition. Lebanon has demanded Israeli troops start pulling out once hostilities end and Beirut sends 15,000 troops of its own to the south to join international forces in a buffer zone. Israel has insisted on staying in southern Lebanon until a robust peacekeeping force is deployed, which could take weeks or months. In other developments: Poll results in Israel showed people growing more pessimistic about the military action. A survey in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper showed 37 percent of the 500 people questioned believed Israel would cripple Hezbollah, compared with 40 percent in a previous survey. Seventeen percent thought Israel would lose the war and Hezbollah would return to south Lebanon, up from 13 percent earlier. The poll conducted by the Dahaf organization also showed Olmert’s approval rating fell to 66 percent from 73 percent. It had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points. The spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ronald Huguenin, said Israel refused to let a Greek ship carrying humanitarian aid and food dock in either Tyre or Sidon. In Geneva, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, told a special session on Lebanon that rights violations on both sides must be investigated.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more