Friday, August 04, 2006

targeting Christian Lebanese---Israel expands Lebanon bombing - Mideast/N. Africa -

Israel hits bridges, expands Lebanon bombing
2 Israeli soldiers killed in southern Lebanon; rockets pound northern Israel
MSNBC News Services

Updated: 6:21 a.m. PT Aug 4, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israel’s pounding of Hezbollah positions across Lebanon expanded Friday with missiles targeting bridges in the Christian heartland north of Beirut for the first time, an attack that further isolates Lebanon from the outside world.

Dozens of farm workers were killed or wounded near the Lebanon-Syria border, the farm foreman said. At least five other civilians died in Israeli strikes north of Beirut, while a Lebanese soldier was killed in an air raid near Beirut's airport, security officials and witnesses said.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said that two Israeli soldiers were killed and two wounded by a Hezbollah-fired anti-tank missile in southern Lebanon. In northern Israel, two civilians were killed and several others injured after more than 100 Hezbollah rockets landed across the border.

The destruction of four bridges on the main north-south coastal highway linking Beirut to Syria further sealed Lebanon from outside links, as the Israeli naval blockade and earlier strikes against roadways have largely closed off other access points.

Fierce fighting also continued along the Israeli-Lebanon border.

Barrage of rockets slams into Israel
The clashes came a day after a massive barrage of guerrilla rockets pounded northern Israel, killing eight people, and an offer by Hezbollah’s leader to stop the attacks if Israel ends its airstrikes. Two more rockets hit northern Israel early Friday, causing little damage.

Israel’s United Nations ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said that Sheik 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, realize the consequences of doing something as unimaginable and crazy as that,” the Israeli ambassador told CNN early Friday.

The Israeli military said the targets of the latest attacks in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahieh were Hezbollah facilities and a Hamas office. Beirut media said Israel launched 24 bombing runs in an hour.

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

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

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

On the second front of its offensive against Islamic militants, Israel began pulling tanks out of southern Gaza after a two-day incursion, after aircraft fired at clusters of militants. The heavy clashes killed 11 Palestinians, including an 8-year-old boy.

Despite Hezbollah’s truce offer and continuing diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire, the Israeli army prepared to push up to Lebanon’s Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border, 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, Hezbollah has shown surprising strength and has found its support in Lebanon — and among the larger Arab world — vastly bolstered. With calls for a cease-fire growing more intense, it appeared likely that Hezbollah would emerge damaged but far from destroyed by the fighting.

Hundreds killed
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 U.N. reported, 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, an Associated Press count shows that 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. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said that 1 million people — or about a quarter of Lebanon’s population — had fled the fighting.

Seventy-two Israelis have been killed — 43 soldiers and 29 civilians. More than 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north, Israeli officials said.

Despite Israel’s efforts to crush Hezbollah, the guerrillas launched at least 200 rockets into northern Israel on Thursday. The barrage underscored Hezbollah’s continued ability to carry out unrelenting strikes.

In response, Defense 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, 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 5-mile-deep Hezbollah-free zone.

In his televised speech broadcast Thursday night, Hezbollah’s Nasrallah for the first time offered to stop firing rockets into Israel if it stops its airstrikes. But he also threatened to launch missiles into 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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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