Hizbollah fights Israeli push

King discusses Lebanon crisis with Prodi, renews support for Siniora’s plan to end war

MARJAYOUN (Reuters) — Hizbollah fighters fought Israeli troops who seized a key town in southeast Lebanon on Thursday, as the United States and France moved closer to a breakthrough in diplomatic efforts to end the four-week-old war.

Israel said plans for a deeper ground assault into southern Lebanon were on hold to give diplomacy a chance.

“Things are moving in New York today. I hope they move even more quickly and in the hours to come,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters. “We expect, from one moment to the next, an accord in New York.”

Diplomats said a deal was possible by the end of the day, allowing a Security Council vote on Friday. US Ambassador John Bolton, was more guarded. “It is entirely possible we could have a vote tomorrow,” he said.

“But I wouldn’t put odds on it.” Hizbollah fired nearly 70 rockets into Israel, killing a woman and a toddler in an Arab Israeli village, medics said. The army said an Israeli soldier was killed by an anti-tank missile in fighting in southern Lebanon.

Israeli forces headed towards the southeastern town of Khiam under cover of heavy artillery and air strikes, residents said.

Infantry moved through the Christian towns of Marjayoun and Qlaiah overnight and imposed a curfew.

The fighting intensified even though Israel said plans for an expanded ground offensive, approved on Wednesday, had been put on hold to allow more time for US-led diplomatic efforts.

“Fifteen casualties in one day proves what price we could pay if we do not try to make the most of the political move,” Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said, referring to Israeli military casualties on Wednesday.

US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch paid another visit to Jerusalem for what diplomats described as a last-ditch push for a deal on a resolution. He visited Beirut on Wednesday.

Diplomats said US and Israeli officials were discussing what they described as a “consecutive ceasefire” under which Israeli military operations would be scaled back in stages when Lebanese troops and more foreign soldiers begin deploying.

“The breakthrough is based on the inclusion in the call for a cessation of hostilities for a progressive Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory to go simultaneously with the deployment of the Lebanese army backed by reinforced UN peacekeepers,” a senior Lebanese political source said.

A deal had been delayed because of divisions between the United States and France over when Israeli troops would leave.

Lebanon wants an immediate ceasefire and a swift Israeli withdrawal. Israel says it will fight on until foreign troops and the Lebanese army move in — a stance backed by Washington, which fears a security vacuum that could let Hizbollah regroup.

France, which may lead the foreign force, does not want it to deploy before a ceasefire and a political agreement.

Humanitarian crisis

The conflict has created an acute humanitarian crisis, especially for an estimated 10,000 people trapped in south Lebanon, where aid agencies said hospitals were running out of food, fuel and other supplies.

UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland said a ceasefire was of critical importance.

“It’s a disgrace really, because the parties to the conflict, the Hizbollah and the Israelis, could give us access in a heartbeat, and then we could help 120,000 people in southern Lebanon,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

The Israeli infantry advance towards Khiam was followed by tanks that drew intense Hizbollah fire. “I can see two tanks burning some 500 metres from Marjayoun,” one resident said.

A third tank arrived later and removed several casualties, he said, adding that Hizbollah fighters were raining rocket and mortar fire on the Israeli force between Marjayoun and Khiam.

The war has cost the lives of at least 1,011 people in Lebanon and 122 Israelis.

Residents flee Beirut suburbs

Israeli leaflets dropped on Beirut told people in the crowded Shiyah, Bourj Al Barajneh and Hay Al Sulloum districts to leave or be bombed. The Shiite suburbs have already been heavily hit. Hundreds of residents fled the area, most moving to a football stadium in a Christian town north of Beirut.

Israeli Brigadier-General Ido Nehushtan claimed 50 Hizbollah fighters had been killed in Wednesday’s fighting, bringing their death toll in the conflict to “between 400 and 500”.

Lebanese security sources estimate Hizbollah’s losses at about 100. Hizbollah has acknowledged only about 60 dead.

Israeli Tourism Minister Yitzhak Herzog made clear a push by ground forces to the Litani River, some 20km inside Lebanon, remained an option.

An Israeli air raid killed a motorcyclist near Tyre on Thursday. Another strike killed a civilian in the Bekaa Valley.

Hours before the overnight Israeli advance, Hizbollah’s chief vowed to turn the south into a graveyard for the invaders.

But for the first time, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also said Hizbollah backed a Lebanese government decision to send 15,000 troops to the border if that would promote a peaceful solution.

Hizbollah, which has controlled the south since Israeli occupation troops left in 2000, has long resisted international pressure on Lebanon to deploy the army to the region.

In Amman, meanwhile, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported that King Abdullah and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi discussed yesterday over the telephone Israel’s “aggression on Lebanon”.

The King renewed Jordan’s support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s plan to end the month-old crisis.

The plan calls for a mutual release of prisoners, Israel’s withdrawal to the demarcated frontier and allowing displaced civilians to return home, the Jewish state’s pullout of the occupied Sheeba Farms and placing the territory under temporary UN control, extending Lebanese government authority throughout all of southern Lebanon, expanding the existing UN force in south Lebanon, reinvigorating the 1949 Armistice Agreement and rebuilding the south.

The King and Prodi also discussed EU efforts to push for an “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire”.

The King on Wednesday was in Finland, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, for talks on regional developments with President Tarja Halonen.

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