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Israeli Troops Suffer Heavy Casualties
Jul 26, 8:51 AM (ET)
By SAM F. GHATTAS
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) - Hezbollah inflicted heavy casualties on Israeli troops as they battled for a key hilltop town in southern Lebanon for a fourth day Wednesday, with at least 12 soldiers reported killed. Israel has faced fiercer resistance than expected as it advances across the border in its campaign against the Islamic militant group.
Meanwhile, Lebanese officials confirmed that four U.N. observers were killed when an Israeli airstrike struck their post the night before.
Also Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the country is seeking to establish a that will be free of Hezbollah guerrillas. It was the
The fighting came a day after Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel plans to maintain a security zone in the south until either a multinational force is deployed or Hezbollah is pushed back in a cease-fire agreement that also cuts off the supply of its weapons.
Peretz indicated that troops would try to control such a zone from a distance, by artillery fire and airstrikes, rather than patrolling south Lebanon. The remarks were the first indication of the possibility of a
Olmert told a parliament committee Wednesday that Israel will not reoccupy any part of southern Lebanon, participants said, apparently to reassure lawmakers and the public that troops will not return to Lebanon permanently.
At a Mideast conference in Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said that the conference had agreed to work "immediately" for a cease-fire in Lebanon. Earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for participants to push for an immediate cease-fire to end fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Annan also said an international force was vital to a peaceful solution.
Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite TV channel said at least 12 Israeli soldiers had been killed in the fighting for control of Bint Jbail, a town that has symbolic importance to the Shiite Islamic militant group as one of the centers of resistance to the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli military would only say that several soldiers had been wounded in heavy fighting at Bint Jbail. If confirmed, it would be the largest death toll suffered by the Israeli military in a single attack since the offensive began two weeks ago.
The international community also stepped up efforts to get aid to those stranded in the troubled south. A U.N. convoy of 10 trucks carrying food, medicine, sanitation and hygiene supplies left Beirut for the port city of Tyre. The United Nations said it was the first such effort to distribute aid to the south via "safe humanitarian corridors."
A Jordanian military plane landed at Beirut airport Wednesday to evacuate wounded Lebanese, airport officials said. The aircraft, which was the first to land since the airport was closed July 13 after Israeli airstrikes on its runways, also brought a field hospital. Two more planes were bringing medical equipment and military engineers to help repair the airport.
The European Commission also said it was sending an additional $12.6 million in humanitarian aid to Lebanon and $13.9 million to help cover the costs of travel home for foreigners from poor countries fleeing the fighting.
The Israeli bombardment of a UN observation post in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam provoked a sharp exchange between the world body and Israel. Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said rescue workers were trying to extricate the fourth body from the wrecked building.
Annan said he was shocked by the "apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defense Forces of a U.N. observer post in southern Lebanon."
In response, Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman expressed his "deep regret" for the deaths, but denied that Israel had struck the post intentionally.
"I am shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement of the secretary-general, insinuating that Israel has deliberately targeted the U.N. post," he said, calling the assertions "premature and erroneous."
Olmert called Annan on Wednesday to also express his "deep regret" for the deaths of the U.N. observers. He promised a thorough investigation of the incident and said the results would be presented to Annan.
One of the dead was identified as Chinese U.N. observer Du Zhaoyu, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Israel's ambassador to Beijing was summoned Wednesday morning and asked to convey China's request that Israel fully investigate the incident and issue an apology to the victim's relatives.
"We are deeply shocked by this incident and strongly condemn it," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in the statement.
The other three UN observers were from Austria, Canada and Finland.
Wednesday's fighting broke out when Israeli forces tried to advance inside Bint Jbail, where they have been battling Hezbollah guerrillas for four days. There were conflicting reports about the casualty toll.
A senior Hezbollah official, Mahmoud Komati, told The Associated Press Wednesday that Israeli forces had managed to seize a few points inside Bint Jbail, but had not yet taken the town center.
The Israeli army said several Hezbollah fighters had taken cover in a local mosque.
Hezbollah said "violent confrontations" were taking place between its fighters and Israeli forces attempting to advance toward a hospital in Bint Jbail, which holds the largest Shiite Muslim community in the border area. Hezbollah draws its support from the Shiites.
Fighting also has been heavy for days around the border towns of Aitaroun and Maroun al-Ras, where Israeli forces are trying to eliminate the guerrillas who have been firing rockets into Israel. The area controls the high ground in the central sector of the Lebanese-Israeli border.
The Israeli defense minister said Tuesday that Israel will carve out a "security zone" in southern Lebanon until an international force "with enforcement capability" is deployed there or Hezbollah and its rocket launchers are pushed back from the border and the group's weapons supply is cut off.
He hinted that Israel might enforce the no-go zone from a distance, saying that "we will continue to control (Hezbollah) with our fire toward anyone who will get close to the defined security zone."
Israel maintained such a zone during its occupation of Lebanon; Peretz became the first Israeli leader to raise the idea of restoring it. He did not say whether Israeli troops would patrol southern Lebanon or keep guerrillas out with airstrikes and artillery fire.
Olmert told parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the army would control a nearly 2-mile area just inside the border to ensure it is free of Hezbollah guerrillas, lawmakers quoted him as saying. The Israeli public currently overwhelmingly supports the army's broad offensive in Lebanon, but is not likely to support any reoccupation.
Israeli army commanders also have presented a more limited agenda, saying Israeli ground troops would not push deep into Lebanon and the objective is to kill as many Hezbollah fighters as possible and push others away from the border.
A new volley of Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel on Tuesday, killing a teenage girl, and Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, issued a taped television message saying guerrillas would now start firing rockets deeper into Israel.
As the Israeli incursion continued, the senior Hezbollah leader said the guerrillas had not expected such an onslaught when they killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others during a cross-border raid on July 12.
"The truth is - let me say this clearly - we didn't even expect (this) response ... that (Israel) would exploit this operation for this big war against us," Komati told the AP.
AP correspondents Hamza Hendawi in Nabatiyeh and Sheherezade Faramarzi in Beirut contributed to this story.