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New assault: Israel aims to halt rocket attacks

SHARE New assault: Israel aims to halt rocket attacks

JERUSALEM — Israel approved a massive new ground offensive into southern Lebanon in an effort Wednesday to inflict further damage on Hezbollah and halt most rocket attacks before the U.N. Security Council demands a cease-fire.

The decision came on the deadliest day of the war for Israeli troops in Lebanon, with 15 soldiers killed. It coincided with mounting demands from the international community for both sides to halt the fighting, which has killed at least 829 people.

Israel Army Radio reported early today that heavy battles were in progress in south Lebanese villages across from Israel's Galilee panhandle, hard hit by rockets. Hezbollah said its fighters were engaged in "a violent confrontation" with Israeli forces advancing on a border village.

Israeli troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, also entered the southern Lebanon town of Marjayoun early today, witnesses said. They did not meet any resistance.

And in a televised speech, Hezbollah's leader taunted the Israelis.

"If you enter our land, we will throw you out by force and we will turn the land of our invaluable south into your graveyard," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said. "We will be waiting for you at every village, at every valley. Thousands of courageous holy warriors are waiting for you."

The plan to force Hezbollah guerrillas — and their short-range rockets — out of southern Lebanon and past the Litani River would escalate the fierce fighting there and, if successful, leave Israel in control of a security zone that it evacuated six years ago after a bloody 18-year occupation.

A new Israeli offensive would also put tremendous pressure on the United Nations to agree quickly on a cease-fire to end the fighting that has caused widespread destruction across southern Lebanon and forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters. Israeli officials implied they would halt the new offensive if a cease-fire agreement removes Hezbollah from the border.

The White House said Wednesday neither Israel nor Hezbollah should escalate their war. Press secretary Tony Snow said the U.S. message was for both sides.

Diplomatic efforts to reach a quick U.N. resolution faltered over differences between Washington and Paris on an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. France backed Lebanon's call for Israeli troops to pull out once hostilities end, while the United States supported Israel's insistence on staying until a robust international force is deployed. Lebanon has offered to send troops to patrol the border region.

French President Jacques Chirac appealed for rapid agreement.

"The most immoral of solutions would be to accept the current situation and give up on an immediate cease-fire," he said.

Nasrallah rejected a draft U.N. resolution that would temporarily let Israeli troops remain in south Lebanon and take defensive action.

"The least we can describe this (draft resolution) is as unfair and unjust. It has given Israel more than it wanted and more than it was looking for," he said. He also signaled Hezbollah's intention to step up attacks, calling on Israeli Arabs to leave the northern city of Haifa so Hezbollah could pound it with rockets and not worry about killing fellow Muslims.

Israeli officials said the new offensive was to run parallel to cease-fire talks.

"Israel is still working for a diplomatic solution, preferably in the Security Council," said Isaac Herzog, a member of Israel's Security Cabinet, which voted Wednesday to approve the new ground offensive. "We cannot wait forever, we have a million civilians living in bomb shelters, and we have to protect them."

Other officials said privately that the offensive was aimed at pushing the Security Council to take fast action, as well as to clear Hezbollah from south Lebanon.

"The Israeli decision today is taken in absence of concrete steps by the international community to deal with the situation in Lebanon. Such steps would of course make an Israeli military operation superfluous," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "Israel understands fully that the real solution is diplomatic."

A minister in Israel's Security Cabinet said the offensive might not begin for two or three days to give more time to cease-fire talks, but senior military officials said the operation could begin very quickly.

Soon after the Cabinet decision, a column of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles crossed into southern Lebanon and took up positions inside Lebanese territory, witnesses said. The Litani River is about 18 miles north of the border.

Before the new offensive got off the ground, fighting intensified in the border strip that 10,000 Israeli troops were already occupying four miles into southern Lebanon.

Israel hit Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp with an airstrike, killing at least two people. Israeli attacks Wednesday killed eight Lebanese civilians, according to Lebanese officials, and three guerrillas, according to Hezbollah.

An Israeli TV station, quoting unidentified sources, said Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers were among the Hezbollah dead. The Israeli military was unable to confirm the report. Israel has charged that Iran is aiding Hezbollah on the ground as well as supplying the guerrillas with weapons. Iran has denied the charges.

Fifteen Israeli soldiers were killed in a single day of fighting Wednesday, the military said, the highest one-day total in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. The military said 38 soldiers were wounded in battles across south Lebanon.

Israeli warplanes also dropped leaflets over the southern port city of Tyre and over Beirut proper for the first time. The fliers criticized Nasrallah, saying he was "playing with fire" and that the Lebanese people were "paying the price."

Hezbollah fired at least 170 rockets into Israel on Wednesday, the army said.

Since the fighting began, at least 711 people have died on the Lebanese side of the conflict. The Israeli death toll stood at 118, including 36 civilians and 82 soldiers.

Israel's Security Cabinet was told a new offensive could mean 100 to 200 more military deaths, according to a participant. Military officials said it would take the army several days to reach the Litani and then several more weeks to rid that area of Hezbollah's fighters and rocket launchers.

"The assessment is (the new offensive) will last 30 days," said Trade Minister Eli Yishai, a member of the Security Cabinet who abstained from the vote. "I think it will take a lot longer."

The offensive was expected to eliminate 70-80 percent of Hezbollah's short-range rocket launchers, senior military officials said.

The offensive was approved 9-0, with three abstentions at an intense six hour meeting. During the meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and they spoke for half an hour, Israeli officials said. Upon his return to the room, Olmert told the ministers the offensive would be accompanied by a diplomatic initiative.

The government's decision came two days after Lebanon offered to send 15,000 soldiers to patrol the border region, a key Israeli demand intended to prevent attacks on Israel. The current fighting began when Hezbollah fighters crossed into Israel on July 12, killing three soldiers and capturing two others.

In a major shift, Nasrallah said Hezbollah supported a deployment by the Lebanese army after a cease-fire is declared and Israel leaves.

Israeli officials remained skeptical of the Lebanese offer and were not convinced Lebanon's army would take concrete action to stop Hezbollah attacks.

"It is important that the Lebanese army will be accompanied by an international force that will enable it to reach the south in an organized manner, and to leave the place clean of Hezbollah," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.

Some soldiers said Israel was having trouble controlling even the small strip it was already occupying.

"The biggest problem is still the existence of Hezbollah fighters all over the place, even though we have most of the territory under control," said Maj. Avi Ortal, an officer in a reserve brigade in southwestern Lebanon.

"Hezbollah are good fighters. They know the territory. They live there and they have had six years to build compounds," he said.