Israel pulls out of Hezbollah stronghold
By KATHY GANNON, Associated Press Writer
Israeli troops from a key Lebanese border town Saturday where it battled Hezbollah for a week, to have finished its mission after the bloodiest ground fight of the 18-day war.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah threatened in a TV broadcast to attack more cities in central Israel, as .
The battle for has symbolized Israel's difficulty in pushing guerrillas back from the border, whether by air bombardment or ground assault. Hezbollah on Friday escalated its cross-border attacks, firing longer-range missiles deeper into Israel than ever before.
Lebanese civilians have born the brunt of the Israeli onslaught.
The woman and her children were crushed in their home by a strike outside the market town of , which also killed a man in a nearby house, Lebanese security officials said. In another southern town, six bodies were dug from the rubble of a house destroyed by a strike Friday, they said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was returning to the Middle East to give Lebanese and Israeli leaders a refined U.S. package of proposals aimed at ending the violence and breaking Hezbollah's domination of the region along Israel's border.
The American peace plan included new provisions aimed at addressing some demands in a proposal put forward late Thursday by the Lebanese government — and reluctantly agreed to by Hezbollah.
Rice made a fueling stop in Doha, Qatar and praised the Lebanese proposals, the first from Beirut, saying they showed the young democracy could function.
"The most important thing that this does for the process is that it shows a Lebanese government that is functioning as a Lebanese government," Rice told reporters traveling with her. "That is in and of itself extremely important."
Rice plans to meet first with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem for talks on Saturday night, said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. There was no immediate word for a stop in Beirut, but Rice's visit to Lebanon earlier in the week was announced at the last minute for security reasons.
The U.S. peace plan envisions the deployment of a U.N.-mandated multinational force that can provide stability in the region, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.
It also proposes: disarming Hezbollah and integrating the guerrilla force into the Lebanese army; Hezbollah's return of Israeli prisoners; and a buffer zone in southern Lebanon to put Hezbollah rockets out of range of Israel. And it seeks to address some demands from Lebanon: a commitment to resolve the status of a piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon; and the creation of an international reconstruction plan for Lebanon.
The United States is under increasing pressure to quickly find a way to end fighting sparked by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 raid.
Israel's retaliation has spiraled into an all-out attempt to end the guerrillas' domination of south Lebanon. The fighting has killed hundreds, driven some 750,000 Lebanese from their homes, caused a humanitarian crisis — and brought some of the heaviest bombardment of Israel by rocket fire.
The Lebanese plan which Hezbollah signed on to calls for an international force in the south and the eventual disarming of the guerrillas. It falls short Israeli and U.S. demands, however, and there was skepticism Hezbollah would fully agree to an international force once the details are worked out.
Israeli Cabinet minister Avi Dichter said on Israel radio Saturday that it was unacceptable for Lebanon's government "to hide behind the claim that a terror organization is operating on their ground and they cannot stop it." He said Israel holds the government fully accountable for Hezbollah actions, and that "Lebanon is paying the full price these days."
Bombardment by Israeli forces and rocket fire from guerrillas was intense Saturday morning around Bint Jbail, Lebanese security officials said. In the afternoon, the Israeli military said its troops had withdrawn from the Hezbollah stronghold, saying that their mission was complete. The military did not say whether guerrillas remained holed up in the town.
Israeli troops launched their assault on Bint Jbail on July 23, entering some houses in heavy fighting.
the Israeli military's worst one-day loss of the campaign. On
Israel radio cited an unnamed high-ranking officer as saying 50 guerrillas were killed in the week of fighting and hundreds wounded, most of them from a special Hezbollah unit. .
The officer also said Israeli soldiers entered a Hezbollah headquarters in Bint Jbail on Friday and seized weapons, maps and communications equipment.
Whatever Israel's intention, its the pull back from Bint Jbail could provide a , whose radio and television have lauded guerrillas for their prowess and depicted them as slowing down the Israeli war machine.
The mainly Shiite town is symbolic for Hezbollah, earning the nickname "the capital of the resistance" for its vehement support for the Shiite guerrillas during the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation of the south.
Meanwhile, Israeli air raids destroyed the bridge over the Orontes river in the eastern Bekaa Valley and were targeting bridges in the south.
in the fighting, that broke out July 12 after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed one in a cross-border raid. The figure is based on a count Friday from the Health Ministry, based on the number of bodies in hospitals, plus Saturday's deaths outside Natabiyeh and Ain Arab.
, the Israeli army said. Israeli troops have killed about 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, the army said.
The United States, backed by Britain, has adopted a diplomatic stance not embraced by most allies, insisting that any cease-fire must come with conditions to address long-standing regional disputes. Many Europeans and Arab countries are increasing the pressure for an immediate cease-fire first.
There is general agreement an international force is needed in the south to end Hezbollah's decade-long free reign. Details about the force and its mandate are not resolved, but could be at the United Nations on Monday during a meeting called by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Humanitarian aid continued to arrive by sea and by air, but was piling up in Beirut on Saturday. Because , only a trickle has reached the war zone in south Lebanon, where tens of thousands of Lebanese are stranded with dwindling supplies of medicine, food, water and fuel.
Israeli strikes have come within hundreds of yards of the few truck convoys making their way south this week — though no trucks have been hit so far — said officials from the international Red Cross, U.N. and other agencies. Israel has promised safe passage for aid but on a convoy-by-convoy basis; often 72-hour notice is required, slowing the process, officials said.
Israel on Saturday rejected a U.N. request for a three-day cease-fire to get in supplies and allow civilians to leave the war zone.