Huge Israeli offensive launched

Despite UN agreement on ceasefire, 30,000 troops are now operating inside Lebanon
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The Independent Online

Israel was in the midst of an expanded air and ground military campaign inside Lebanon yesterday despite international agreement on a UN resolution calling for an "immediate" halt to a month of hostilities by both sides.

In the largest operation of its kind since the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the Israelis used up to 50 helicopters to land hundreds of troops deep inside southern Lebanon before dawn as part of the intensified ground offensive ordered by the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, hours before Friday's UN vote.

With the Israeli cabinet due to vote today on Mr Olmert's recommendation to accept the terms of the ceasefire package endorsed by the UN Security Council, Lebanese officials indicated that at least 20 people had been killed in a series of Israeli air and missile attacks. Eleven Israeli soldiers were killed ­ including two accidentally run over by an Israeli tank ­ and in a separate incident casualties were feared after a helicopter was shot down by Hizbollah guerrillas over southern Lebanon.

With Tony Blair facing a rising tide of criticism of his Middle East policy, it was announced yesterday that the Prime Minister will visit Israel and Palestine after he returns from his three-week holiday.

Yesterday, as Israel sought to maximise its military impact against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon before the ceasefire takes effect, Dan Halutz, Israel's military chief of staff, indicated that its operations could continue until the promised combined multinational and Lebanese force is deployed. Some 30,000 Israeli troops are now operating inside southern Lebanon. The most lethal single Israeli missile strike yesterday was on the southern Lebanon village of Rachaf , where 15 died, while Israeli bombs hit power plants in Sidon and Tyre.

In northern Lebanon, Israeli aircraft bombed the road to the Arida border post, the last open official crossing point into Syria for humanitarian convoys and civilians fleeing the country. Witnesses said the attack had left the main road impassable but that drivers were trying to negotiate their way through nearby ruts and ditches.

The military said forces had reached the Litani river ­ though without specifying at which point ­ and said that its forces had killed 40 Hizbollah guerrillas during the day. Another 50 Israeli soldiers were injured, several seriously, in a continued campaign which military sources suggested was largely directed at eliminating sites used to launch more than 3,500 rockets into northern Israel since the conflict began. Three civilians were slightly injured yesterday when, after a morning lull, Hizbollah launched around 30 more rockets into northern Israel.

The Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made it clear that he would accept the combined UN and Lebanese army force embodied in the ceasefire terms, and declared in an address that while Hizbollah ministers would express " reservations" about articles in the deal they found unjust, "we will not be an obstacle to any government decision that it finds appropriate". He warned, however, that continued resistance to the current Israeli offensive was "our natural right". Mr Nasrallah was speaking shortly before the Lebanese Cabinet formally endorsed the ceasefire deal while duly registering the "reservations" of its two Hizbollah members.

General Halutz said the armoured and infantry ground force had "tripled" in size, and the IDF would "continue operating against Hizbollah until there is a decision on the ceasefire, and even more until there is found a mechanism that would implement the decision, like an alternative force" .

Even allowing for the IDF's natural desire to demonstrate that it was ready to fight on and that the politicians should take any responsibility for halting the war, General Halutz's remarks on Israeli television ­ before the Hizbollah reaction ­ appeared to presage several tense days in which fighting could yet threaten the fragile ceasefire process.

The chief of staff's declaration, however, appeared to put him at odds with that of unnamed officials in the Prime Minister's office who were quoted as saying that the ceasefire would begin at 7am tomorrow.

There was speculation that Mr Olmert, already expected to face right-wing charges that he ended the war too early, could yet feel obliged to grant the army time to provide the international force with what one official described as "cleaner territory" over which to assume control when it is finally deployed. But Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, said she expected hostilities to end "some time" tomorrow.

Alvaro De Soto, the UN peace envoy to the Middle East, indicated yesterday that he hoped the new force would start deploying within seven to 10 days. Despite the UN resolution's emphasis on an "immediate cessation of hostilities", the small print allows potential leeway for operations to continue for several days if Mr Olmert judges it politically or militarily necessary. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is entrusted by the resolution with the task of arranging the ceasefire's mechanics, and Israel is precluded from "offensive" ground operations ­ implying that it can still conduct "defensive" ones, particularly in the event of Hizbollah attacks.

Israeli officials also argued that the terms of the resolution would allow it to act militarily against any attempts by Hizbollah to import weapons until such time as an international-Lebanese monitoring group is in place. The officials said the toughening of the resolution's wording on Hizbollah's arms had been one of Israel's negotiating achievements before the UN vote and after Mr Olmert had authorised the ground campaign.

But Mr Olmert's decision on Friday to combine acceptance of the UN ceasefire vote with authorisation of a large-scale invasion also appeared to reflect the conflicting pressures from left and right on his conduct of the war. Mr Olmert had been receiving a welter of advice on his next step after a month in which 41 Israeli civilians and 83 Israeli soldiers had been killed without tangible success in halting Hizbollah's attacks.

The debate was reflected in columns by two Israeli commentators in the liberal daily Haaretz on Friday. Uzi Benziman wrote: "The diplomatic solution, in spite of its limitations and the bitter pills to be swallowed, is preferable to expanding the war, since a new military move would not change the outcome of the armed conflict." By contrast, Ari Shavit called on Mr Olmert to resign if he "runs away from the war he started" and declared: "You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month, wear down deterrent power, bring the next war very close, and then say 'Oops, I made a mistake'."

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