Fighting intensifies between Israel and Hezbollah as diplomats make progress


BEIRUT, Lebanon Israel and Hezbollah sharply intensified fighting with a blitz of airstrikes, dozens of rocket attacks and brutal ground combat today, each apparently trying to inflict as much damage as possible to strengthen their bargaining positions.

In a sign of progress on the diplomatic front, the United States and France agreed on a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for the fighting to end but would let Israel defend itself if attacked.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch also met with Lebanese officials in Beirut for talks focused on establishing a lasting political framework and an international force to support the Lebanese army in moving into the south.

My meeting today was an important step to putting behind us forever the terrible violence witnessed in the past three weeks, Welch said after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

Israeli commandos battled Hezbollah guerrillas in a raid on an apartment building in the southern port city of Tyre, while warplanes blasted south Beirut. The fighting across Lebanon killed at least eight Lebanese and an Israeli soldier, while a Hezbollah rocket volley killed three women in northern Israel.

The raid in Tyre was the latest Israeli commando operation deep inside Lebanese territory aimed at taking out Hezbollah strongpoints even as heavy fighting raged closer to the border, where Israel is trying to push back guerrillas.

Both Israel and Hezbollah claimed victory, with Israel saying it took out a key guerrilla unit involved in firing long-range rockets into its territory including one Friday that hit the town of Hadera some 50 miles south of the border in the deepest Hezbollah strike yet.

The commandos landed from the sea and progressed through an orchard before dawn, cutting through a barbed wire fence to advance on the apartment building where a fierce gunbattle broke out with those inside.

Later, pools of blood were seen in the orchard, through which the Israelis evacuated their wounded. A corner apartment in the building was left charred, with furniture melted by an initial explosion in the assault. The building s stairs and pavement outside were stained with blood and littered with bullets from the fighting.

At least five Lebanese including a soldier at a nearby checkpoint were killed in the raid, the Lebanese military and rescue workers said.

Brig. Gen. Noam Feig, Israel s deputy navy commander, said the commandos killed four Hezbollah guerrillas inside the apartment who were directly involved in the Hadera attack.

Five more Hezbollah fighters were killed in a gunbattle on the way out, while eight Israeli soldiers were injured, including one who underwent surgery at the scene, Feig said.

A resident said he saw the commando force attack the building. They all had beards. I thought maybe they were Hezbollah, 18-year-old Qassem Aad said of the Israelis.

Aad said he saw several people standing outside the building with their hands up, then the shooting erupted. I saw a man screaming, he was shot, the teen recalled.

Separately, a missile fired by an Israeli drone killed two people riding a motorcycle near al-Bass, on the outskirts of Tyre, the Lebanese military said.

In eastern Lebanon, a gutted van with the charred body of the driver was found this morning in a field near Qaa, the town s mayor, Saadeh Toum, said.

Meanwhile, loud explosions resounded in Beirut as Israeli warplanes renewed their strikes on Hezbollah strongholds in the capital s southern suburbs. Lebanon s state-run National News Agency said four people were killed in the bombing.

Hezbollah fired some 70 rockets into northern Israel, killing three Israeli women in a single attack in a direct hit on the house they were in, police said.

Hezbollah has fired some 3,000 rockets into northern Israel since fighting broke out July 12, the Israeli army said. Israel s military also said it carried out some 160 airstrikes against Lebanon in the past 36 hours.

More than three weeks of Israeli bombardment have been unable to stop the rocket attacks. The Israeli military has stepped up its ground campaign, pushing troops across all along the border in an attempt to force Hezbollah back. The troops have seized positions in or near 20 towns and villages, moving about two miles into Lebanon with the deepest foray about six miles in, according to Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel s northern command.

Heavy clashes erupted at the border village of Aita al-Shaab, where Hezbollah s Al-Manar TV reported that guerrillas ambushed Israeli troops with machine guns and rockets in a coordinated attack from different sides. Al-Manar said at least six Israelis were killed or wounded.

Today s Hezbollah barrage brought to 33 the number of Israeli civilians killed by rocket fire in 25 days of fighting. Forty-five Israeli soldiers have been killed in battles with Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon, including one on Saturday. Some 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes.

An Associated Press count showed at least 567 Lebanese have been killed, including 489 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry, 28 Lebanese soldiers and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas. The Lebanese government s Higher Relief Council said 907 Lebanese had been killed in the conflict.

Estimates of Lebanese homeless range from 800,000 to 1 million.

In the southeast, Hezbollah mortars hit two vehicles of an Israeli engineering corps during heavy fighting around a village in the Taibeh area the scene of a major Israeli ground assault in recent days. An Israeli soldier was killed and nine others wounded, the military said.

Later Saturday, the Israeli air force dropped leaflets in the southern port of Sidon, between Tyre and Beirut, saying rockets had been fired from nearby and warning civilians to evacuate Lebanon s third-largest city and flee north ahead of bombing.

The French-U.S. agreement on a U.N. resolution represented a significant show of unity after weeks of disagreements. The United States has been resisting European pressure for a resolution calling for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire.

The resolution would call for the current U.N. force in Lebanon, known by its acronym UNIFIL, to monitor the cessation in fighting. Once Israel and Lebanon have agreed to a series of steps also spelled out in the resolution for a long-term solution, the Security Council would then authorize a new peacekeeping force for the region.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said the resolution was likely to be adopted in the next couple of days.

Pressure remained high for a cease-fire amid fears the fighting could spiral out of control to other parts of the Middle East.

Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, the prime minister of Kuwait, a top U.S. ally, warned that the Lebanon war could contribute to creating new terrorists, and that of course would pose a new danger in the area.

Thousands of people also marched in Britain, South Africa and Egypt Saturday to protest the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, some demanding an immediate halt to the fighting and others pressing for sanctions against Israel.

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