Hizbollah kills eight on bloody day for Israel

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The Independent Online

Israel suffered its heaviest death toll from Hizbollah rockets last night when eight civilians were killed on a day of escalating violence either side of the border with Lebanon.

Four Israeli soldiers were also killed in fighting as up to 10,000 troops, backed by armour, artillery and air support, sought to enforce a " security zone" to keep Hizbollah back from the border.

Israel resumed its overnight bombardment of targets in Beirut shortly after the rocket attacks, with at least two explosions heard in the south of the city early this morning, and senior officers warned of a further expansion of its ground operations in southern Lebanon. The casualties were inflicted amid a still slow-moving diplomatic effort to secure a ceasefire agreement at the UN in New York that seemed likely to prolong the conflict well into next week.

In Israel, five people were killed in the northern port city of Acre after emerging from shelters in the wake of an earlier barrage. Three farmers were killed in the north-eastern community of Maalot after stopping their car and lying in the road after an earlier Katyusha rocket landed near them. Emergency services reported that at least five other people had been seriously injured in the Acre attack.

Two soldiers were killed when their tank was hit by a Hizbollah missile in the Lebanese village of Ramjin, about two miles from here, and a third later died of his wounds. The army said last night that a fourth member of the tank crew was also seriously wounded. Another soldier died in a separate incident in Taibeh.

Heavy exchanges of fire were audible at several points along the border as troops in armoured personnel carriers could be seen heading to and from southern Lebanon.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, offered to stop rocket attacks on northern Israel in return for an end to airstrikes throughout Lebanon. But he vowed to launch rockets into Tel Aviv if Israeli jets were to strike at the centre of Beirut proper. "If you bomb our capital Beirut, we will bomb the capital of your usurping entity... We will bomb Tel Aviv," he said.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, Palestinian officials said an eight-year-old boy was among eight people killed after about 50 tanks, accompanied by bulldozers, pushed into an area close to the Gaza-Egypt border before dawn. It was the Israeli army's deepest entry into southern Gaza since the kidnap of the soldier Gilad Shalit more than five weeks ago.

The deaths in northern Israel yesterday brought the Israeli military and civilian death toll to 68. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, said the war had killed 900 people in Lebanon and wounded another 3,000, with a third of the casualties children under 12. He said a million Lebanese, a quarter of the population, had been displaced and the infrastructure devastated. A tally of Lebanese deaths kept by the Reuters news agency is at least 683.

Israeli aircraft had earlier bombed the southern suburbs of Beirut ­ an area where Hizbollah bases itself ­ and dropped leaflets warning civilian residents in three neighbourhoods to leave. The army had indicated on Wednesday that it would be for the cabinet to decide on a resumption of bombing in Beirut's heavily populated southern neighbourhoods.

As the fighting continued in southern Lebanon, Alon Friedman, head of the Northern Command headquarters, told Channel One television that he had " more or less" established a security zone around 20 villages in southern Lebanon, but added: "There are still villages that aren't clean and from where there is resistance, and in the coming days we will apparently have to continue to clean them."

The Associated Press quoted unnamed military officials as saying that the Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, wanted a "second phase" of the ground operation, in which an augmented force would push north to the Litani river.

Last night at the UN, France circulated a revised resolution calling for an immediate end to hostilities. But France's ambassador to the UN, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, said he was less optimistic about its adoption.

Day 23

* Hizbollah's rocket attacks on Israel kill seven civilians after more than 100 missiles are launched in an hour.

* Israeli forces fight Hizbollah across southern Lebanon and claim to control 11 villages, four miles from Israel's border.

* At least four Hizbollah militants and three Israeli soldiers killed.

* Israeli air strikes hit at least 70 targets. Beirut, Bekaa Valley, Nabatiyeh and Blat are all hit.

* Israeli tanks, bulldozers and soldiers roll back into Gaza, killing eight Palestinians, including a boy, eight.

* Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, authorises troops to push for Lebanon's Litani river.

* Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, says rocket attacks on Israel will end if Israelis stop attacking civilians. Also threatens to hit Tel Aviv if central Beirut is bombed.

* Prime Minister Fouad Siniora says 900 have died so far in Lebanon; a million people are displaced.

* Israel: 25 civilians dead; 41 soldiers killed.