Israel extends bombing of Lebanon

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The Independent Online

Israel pounded Hezbollah's southern Beirut strongholds with missiles early today and, in a sharp expansion of its bombing of Lebanon, targeted bridges for the first time in the Christian heartland north of the capital.

Four civilians were killed and 10 wounded in the airstrikes on bridges north of Beirut early today, the Lebanese Red Cross said.

A Lebanese soldier was killed and two other soldiers were wounded along with four civilians in air raids near Beirut's airport and the southern suburbs of the capital overnight, security officials and witnesses said.

The strikes came as a massive wave of guerrilla rockets pounded northern Israel yesterday, killing eight people, hours before Hezbollah's leader offered to stop the attacks if Israel ends its airstrikes.

Israel's United Nations ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said that sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's offer of a truce was "a sign of weakness ... and he may be looking for a way out."

Gillerman warned against Hezbollah threats to launch rockets on Israel's commercial center of Tel Aviv. "We are ready for it, and I am sure that he (Nasrallah), as well as his sponsors, realise the consequences of doing something as unimaginable and crazy as that," the Israeli ambassador told CNN early today.

The Israeli military said the targets of the latest attacks in the southern Beirut suburb of Danieh were Hezbollah facilities and a Hamas office. Beirut media said Israel launched 24 bombing runs in an hour. The Israeli military said its aircraft were hitting Hezbollah targets all over Lebanon.

South Beirut has been attacked repeatedly by Israeli warplanes since fighting began on July 12. It is predominantly Shiite Muslim sector largely controlled by Hezbollah guerrillas, and Israel has not struck Beirut proper since the start of the war.

However, the strikes early today hit the affluent Christian locality of Jounieh, north of the capital, for the first time. The bombing marked a sharp expansion of Israel's attack on Lebanon, which now threatens Christian areas where Hezbollah has no support and no presence.

The broadening strikes could be part of Israel's attempt to pressure the Lebanese government into accepting its conditions for ending the fighting by cutting off Lebanese regions.

In the hills of southern Lebanon, Israeli artillery intensified bombing overnight, sometimes sending as many as 15 shells per minute against suspected Hezbollah strongholds.

Despite Hezbollah's truce offer and continuing diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire, the Israeli army prepared to push up to Lebanon's Litani River as part of its campaign to force the guerrillas away from the border and make room for a planned international force to patrol the area.

In the 24th day of Israel's punishing onslaught both on the ground and from the air, Hezbollah has shown surprising strength and has found its support in Lebanon - and among the larger Arab world - vastly bolstered. With calls for a ceasefire growing more intense, it appeared likely that Hezbollah would emerge damaged but far from destroyed by the fighting.

Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that the fighting was causing a backlash against moderate Arab leaders and was strengthening the very radicals it was intended to destroy. "The Arab people see Hezbollah as a hero because it's fighting Israel's aggression," he said.

The fighting in Gaza, which began June 25 after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, has killed a total of 175 Palestinians, the UN reported yesterday, adding that it was concerned that "with international attention focusing on Lebanon, the tragedy in Gaza is being forgotten."

The offensive in Lebanon began after another cross-border raid by militants, in this case Hezbollah guerrillas, captured two Israeli soldiers. More than three weeks into the fighting, six Israeli brigades - or roughly 10,000 troops - were locked in battle with hundreds of Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.

Since the fighting started, 68 Israelis have been killed, 41 soldiers and 27 civilians. More than 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north, Israeli officials said.

At least 530 Lebanese have been killed, including 454 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry, 26 Lebanese soldiers and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas.

Despite Israel's efforts to crush Hezbollah, the guerrillas launched at least 200 rockets into northern Israel yesterday.

More than 100 of them rained down within a half-hour period yesterday afternoon, setting cars on fire, sending Israelis fleeing into shelters and killing eight people. The barrage, which came a day after the guerrillas fired more than 230 rockets into Israel, underscored Hezbollah's continued ability to carry out unrelenting strikes.

In response, Defence Minister Amir Peretz told top army officers to begin preparing for the next stage of the offensive in south Lebanon, a push to the Litani River, about 20 miles from the border, senior military officials said. Such a push would require further approval by Israel's Security Cabinet and could lead to far more casualties.

The Israeli army said it has taken up positions in or near 11 towns and villages across south Lebanon as part of an effort to carve out a smaller five-mile-deep Hezbollah-free zone.

In his televised speech broadcast last night, Hezbollah's Nasrallah for the first time offered to stop firing rockets into Israel if it stops its airstrikes. However, he also threatened to launch missiles into Israel's commercial centre of Tel Aviv if Israel hits Beirut.

"Anytime you decide to stop your campaign against our cities, villages, civilians and infrastructure, we will not fire rockets on any Israeli settlement or city," he said in a taped statement broadcast on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV.

Speaking directly to Israelis, Nasrallah said: "The only choice before you is to stop your aggression and turn to negotiations to end this folly."

Israeli officials shrugged off the offer, saying Hezbollah was on the defensive and was looking for a breather.

"We have no doubt the Hezbollah leadership would want nothing more than a ceasefire that would allow them to rearm, regroup and once again be in a position of strength where they can dominate Lebanese politics and initiate the kind of crisis we've seen over the past few weeks," Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

At the United Nations, France circulated a revised resolution calling for an immediate end to hostilities and spelling out the conditions for a permanent ceasefire and lasting solution to the crisis.

Israel, backed by the United States, has rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire, saying it wants an international force or the Lebanese army to deploy in southern Lebanon to prevent future Hezbollah attacks.

In an effort to bolster the Lebanese military, the United States announced plans to train the Lebanese army so it can take control of the south after the fighting ends. Other nations will help out as well, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.

The destruction of four bridges on the main north-south coastal highway linking Beirut to Syria contributed to further seal Lebanon from the outside world today, as the Israeli naval blockade - along with earlier strikes against the road to the eastern boarder and the capital's international airport - have largely closed off other access points.

Fierce fighting continued along the border, and Hezbollah said in a statement broadcast by the group's Al-Manar TV station that guerrillas had killed six Israeli soldiers near the villages of Aita al-Shaab and Markaba.

Arab media reported Hezbollah had hit an Israeli tank. The Israeli army was not immediately available to comment these claims.

Israel was waging a "war of starvation" on Lebanese civilians in an effort to force the Lebanese government to agree to Israel's demands, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said in a statement issued today.

His comments came after Israeli warplanes bombed bridges and roads in Christian neighbourhoods north of Beirut, killing five civilians and making travel between suburbs increasingly difficult. Missiles struck the country's main north-south highway - its primary artery to the outside world, through Syria in the north.

"The Israeli enemy's bombing of bridges and roads is aimed at tightening the blockade on the Lebanese, cutting communications between them and starving them," Lahoud said.

He linked the new raids to Israel's failure to win quick victory in the south, where Israeli soldiers have been mired in ground battles with Hezbollah guerrillas for several days.

"Today's air raids confirm that Israel is trying to compensate for the losses of its army in the south ... by cutting off the only coastal highway remaining to transport aid to displaced people and refugees and supply the country with oil products, foodstuffs and aid," Lahoud said.

He said new airstrikes showed Israel was trying to pressure Lebanon to accept its conditions for a ceasefire, which include Hezbollah's disarmament and ousting from a swath of south Lebanon.

Israel's bombardment aims to "impose conditions that have been rejected by Lebanon, which insists on an immediate ceasefire before any other step," Lahoud said.

"It is a war of starvation launched by Israel against Lebanon," he said. "It is an aggression that has exceeded Israel's declared objectives. Israel has now decided to destroy Lebanon."