JERUSALEM – By air and by land, thousands of Israeli troops plunged deep inside southern Lebanon Saturday and charged toward the Litani River battling Hezbollah fighters, even as the United Nations brokered a Monday morning cease-fire.
The scenario suggested a sticking point for how to impose the truce after a month of escalating warfare:
Even as the warring parties seemed poised to accept a foreign force and the Lebanese Army to separate them, Israel said it would hold conquered ground until the international force relieved its soldiers.
Hezbollah’s leader replied that he would accept the truce, too. But “as long as there are Israeli soldiers on our soil we will continue to fight them,” said Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
And combat was fierce as Israeli troops thrust into new battleground all the way to the Litani River, 18 miles north of the border. It appeared to be one last push to confront and weaken the Shiite fighters firing rockets into northern Israel, as well as bid to draw the line where the international forces would take over.
Nineteen Israeli soldiers were killed Saturday and 70 were wounded, the highest single-day death toll for troops in Lebanon since the conflict started, military officials said Sunday. The military also said a five-member crew of a downed helicopter was missing. About 19 Lebanese civilians were killed.
For the massive push, Israel tripled its troop strength inside Lebanon, Israel’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told reporters in the north Saturday, meaning an estimated 30,000 Israeli fighters were on Lebanese soil. That included hundreds of commandos reportedly ferried north toward the Litani in combat helicopters.
Halutz said Israel’s military would keep fighting until it got an order from Prime Minster Ehud Olmert to do otherwise.
The first opportunity for that order comes today, when Israel’s regular weekly Cabinet meeting is expected to accept the United Nations plan – first for a cease-fire, then for the foreign force deployment.
In Beirut, the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora endorsed the U.N. resolution on Saturday. It proposes to send 15,000 international forces to join with Lebanon Army troops as a buffer to keep Israeli and Hezbollah forces apart. Ultimately, they’re to demilitarize the zone of southern Lebanon where the armed wing of the parliamentary Party of God has functioned as an independent militia since Israel ceded the south in May 2000.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Saturday night that both Siniora and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in principle to a 7 a.m. Monday cease-fire – midnight in New York.
In Israel, government spokesman Mark Regev said that Olmert’s Cabinet was expected to approve the U.N. Security Council plan adopted through a resolution Friday, including Annan’s “H-Hour” – the hour that both sides stop fighting.
Regardless, Israel would not leave Lebanon, Regev said, until international forces took up Israeli positions.
“We can stay put,” Regev said, citing the resolution. “There is no question of moving out until they relieve.”
A U.N. force currently acts as observers in south Lebanon, recording violations of earlier truces and reporting them back to headquarters. Now, the U.N. must assemble a more robust force, which Israel has asked the Bush administration to vet and make sure includes NATO members.
In New York, U.N. envoy Alvaro de Soto said it could take seven to 10 days to organize the force, meaning in the best-case scenario a week or more of close-range clashes. Both sides would agree to stop firing rockets, and Israel would stop its air strikes.
“If there is an agreement on the cessation of hostilities between the Lebanese government and the enemy, we will observe it without delay,” Nasrallah said Saturday, as the battle raged. But, he predicted “the war will continue for another few days. That’s why we are continuing to fight today.”
And, though there was a marked decrease, Hezbollah lobbed an estimated 68 katyusha rockets into the small towns and farm studded north, setting off sirens through the Jewish Sabbath. And the Israeli military continued to fire its 155m Howitizer rounds and other rockets into the south, supporting the expanding force of Israeli fighters.
An official Israeli count released early Thursday reported 96 citizens killed in the month-long war, 56 of them soldiers. Lebanese sources estimate about ten times as many fatalities, many from Israeli airstrikes on civilian buildings that Israel argues Hezbollah fighters use as cover. Israel claims to have killed upwards of 550 Hezbollah fighters.
In South Lebanon Saturday, Tyre was completely isolated after overnight Israeli air strikes took out the last makeshift bridge over the Litani – presumably a key Hezbollah re-supply route.
City residents described a ghost town, with 90 percent of Tyre’s population having already fled Israeli air strikes and commando raids in four months of fighting triggered by Hezbollah’s bold July 12 incursion into Israel and capture of two Israeli soldiers.
No vehicles moved, the Israel Defense Forces having warned that any moving traffic would be hit. Gaping holes were apparent in an empty building in Tyre where missiles tore through two apartments, according to local residents.
The Lebanese Red Cross in Tyre was immobilized and unable to get to Kasmiyeh, a town across the Litani River where people had been killed and injured in Israeli air strikes Saturday morning, said Qassim Shaalan with the Lebanese Red Cross in Tyre. After losing one medic traveling with a convoy leaving Marjayoun that was hit by Israeli air strikes and an ambulance carrying bread and medicine was hit and destroyed in Tibnin, medics are worried about being killed themselves.
“Our ambulances are being attacked,” Shaalan said. “There is no way to help. It’s terrible.”
In the port city of Sidon a power station was struck by Israeli artillery and the city was left without power. Generators were running the local hospitals but the mayor, Abdul Rahmna Bizri, worried that it would disrupt water supplies.
U.N. observers reported ground battles across the south, especially in south central Lebanon, but gave no estimates of dead and wounded.
“It never stopped,” said Milos Strober, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in Naqoura early Sunday. “There was intensive shelling, bombardment, basically the heavy exchanges continued unabated. Maybe the intensity of the fighting on the ground was higher than on previous days, and the intensity of rocket firing and aerial bombardment was somewhat reduced.”
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