Israel pushes further into Lebanon

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Armoured columns of the Israeli Defense Forces are meeting resistance as they move deeper into Lebanon in an attempt to capture the Hezbollah stronghold of Khiam as 40,000 Israeli troops mass on the Lebanese border following an Israeli cabinet decision to widen the war. Israel took control of the strategic southern Lebanese hub of Marjayoun on Thursday as part of its northern push.

Israel ratcheted up its fight against Hezbollah, beginning operations aimed at the heart of Beirut, taking control of a largely Christian southern Lebanese town, named Marjeyoun. The Israeli military also dropped leaflets in Beirut, warning of expanded operations inside the capital and urging people in southern Shiite neighborhoods to evacuate. Those neighborhoods have been bastions of support for Hezbollah. "To the people who live in Hay El Soulom, Borj El Barajneh, Shiyah ... For your safety," one flier warned. "You must evacuate these areas immediately and evacuate any area from where Hezbollah and its members or their assistants are launching their terrorist operations. "Be aware!"

Other Israeli troops also advanced on the town of Khiam. Israeli jets also struck a lighthouse used as a cell phone communications tower in central Beirut. Witnesses said they saw a man being loaded into an ambulance at the scene. There was no immediate information on his condition. The area, located in an upscale neighborhood where slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri lived, is outside the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs that Israeli forces have targeted up to now.

Israeli troops had warned residents to remain in their homes as forces moved toward the nearby town of Blatt, Lebanese military intelligence and police said. The secured area overlooks the Litani River, where Hezbollah fighters have reportedly launched rockets into Israel, sources said.

On Wednesday, the Israeli government approved a plan to widen the war in Lebanon in an attempt to destroy Hezbollah installations and neutralize its ability to launch rockets. The cabinet has authorized the Israeli army to advance as far north as the Litani River, 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of the Lebanese-Israeli border. However, Israel says yesterday's push is not part of that campaign.

"It's a small operation that looks large from where we're looking right now, but this is not opening up any new front," IDF spokeswoman Miri Eisen said. "It's taking care of one that has been consistently hitting Kiryat Shmona."

Hezbollah officials reacted angrily to the Israeli cabinet's decision. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared on Al-Manar television, and threatened to make southern Lebanon "a graveyard" for the Israelis.

"I say to the Zionists, you could come anywhere, invade, land airborne forces, enter this village or that, but I repeat, all this will cost you a high price," he said.

The Israeli army says 15 of its soldiers were killed in combat on Wednesday, and that 40 Hezbollah fighters died the same day. Hezbollah fired more than 100 rockets into Israel, while no casualties from the Israeli side were reported.

The IDF says it currerntly has approximately 10,000 troops on the ground in southern Lebanon, a number that will swell to 50,000 in coming days.

As the fighting continues, U.S. sources said they no longer expect that a joint U.S.-French UN draft resolution calling for a ceasefire in Lebanon would reach a Security Council vote by a hoped for Thursday deadline. Disagreement over whether the resolution should call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is an obstacle.

The resolution was to be co-sponsored by the United States and France, but the two countries are now at odds over how to reword the proposal in light of Arab objections to the original draft. The French have accepted a Lebanese offer to send 15,000 troops into the south to monitor the ceasefire if Israel withdraws immediately, while the U.S. wants Israel to be able to remain in southern Lebanon for a few weeks until a new multi-national force arrives.

More than 1000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, have died in the month-long conflict according to Lebanon's government. 100 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have also been killed.