Israel nearly triples troops in Lebanon
By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press Writer
Israel staged into the Hezbollah heartland Saturday as the United Nations raced to begin enforcing its new cease-fire blueprint and stop the heavy fighting still raging in southern Lebanon.
The Islamic militant group said its fighters killed seven Israeli soldiers and destroyed 21 tanks in combat Saturday. Israel said its troops had killed 40 Hezbollah guerrillas over the previous 24 hours. Neither side commented on the other's claims.
Israel blasted a highway near Lebanon's last open border crossing to Syria as it kept up its full-scale campaign against Hezbollah. Long columns of Israeli tanks, soldiers and armored personnel carriers streamed over the border.
The U.N. plan approved Friday night would create a peacekeeping force by combining a beefed-up version of the ineffective U.N. units already in the war zone and 15,000 soldiers from the Lebanese army. The force, which could number around 30,000, would stand between Israel and Hezbollah's militia.
to approve the U.N. plan. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad saying it served the interests of his country and "shows that the whole world stood by Lebanon."
**it will be interesting to see if Lebanon signs on, but Israel finds a way to weasel out. Then Israel will claim to hold Lebanon to the agreement?**
Saniora also praised Hezbollah guerrillas. "The steadfastness of the resistance fighters in the field was very important, as was the steadfastness and unity of the people," he said.
President Bush blamed the fighting on Hezbollah in a statement calling on the world's leaders to implement the U.N. plan and help bring real peace to the Middle East.
"The loss of innocent life in both Lebanon and Israel has been a great tragedy," Bush said. "Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors have brought an unwanted war to the people of Lebanon and Israel, and millions have suffered as a result. I now urge the international community to turn words into action and make every effort to bring lasting peace to the region."
Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said Israel has nearly . He said Israeli forces — apparently about 30,000 soldiers now — would stay in Lebanon until an international force arrives.
Israel has demanded an airtight buffer zone and wonders if U.N. and Lebanese forces are up for the task. A small U.N. military presence — now about 2,000 observers — has been in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon since 1978 and has been overwhelmed by the Islamic militant group's rising power, aided by Iran and Syria.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice specifically cited Hezbollah's two sponsors in a statement Friday for all parties to "respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and the will of the international community."
But the that erupted exactly a month ago and has claimed nearly 900 lives — including at least 761 in Lebanon and 123 Israelis.
Israeli missiles slammed into the southern Lebanon village of Rachaf, about 10 miles from the Israeli border, killing at least 15 civilians, security officials said. Israeli ground forces also fanned out across southern Lebanon hunting for Hezbollah rocket batteries that have fired unending salvos across the border.
Three people also were killed in strikes on Kharayeb, and a Lebanese soldier was killed in an air raid near an army base in the Bekaa Valley, officials said.
In Sidon, a coastal city between Beirut and the Israeli border, Israeli bombs destroyed a power plant. Farther south, another power facility was hit near Tyre, knocking out electricity to the port, police said.
The only other exits from Lebanon are rugged pathways and back roads through deserts or mountains.
Israel seeks to block supply routes for Hezbollah and disrupt their mobility and has warned it would target any vehicles on the roads in southern Lebanon and along other main highways.
Any movement — even under the umbrella of U.N. forces — can prove deadly.
Fighting continued in Hezbollah-held areas around Marjayoun, a strategic hub overlooking valleys used as Hezbollah rocket bases.
Israeli commando units and guerrillas engaged in close combat in a valley near El-Ghandourieh, about 10 miles southwest of Marjayoun, according to Lebanese security officials.
Other Israeli ground forces, backed by aircraft and drones, met stiff resistance as they tried to reach the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border.
Israel said its troops destroyed several rocket batteries and killed more than 40 Hezbollah fighters in the last 24 hours.
The Litani is seen by Israel as a crucial boundary in its attempt to push back Hezbollah. Israel repeatedly has insisted that the proposed peacekeeping force cannot allow Hezbollah weapons south of the river.
But it will be nearly impossible to rid south Lebanon of the Islamic guerrillas, who are now in the Lebanese Cabinet and run clinics and other charities that are considered essential in rebuilding the region. Their ability to withstand the Israeli military assault has also made Hezbollah heroes across the Arab and Islamic worlds.