World: Israel tightens grip on Hezbollah stronghold |

World: Israel tightens grip on Hezbollah stronghold

— Israeli troops sealed off a Hezbollah stronghold and warplanes killed six people in a market city in southern Lebanon on Tuesday, while Beirut was pounded by new air strikes. Guerrillas fired rockets at northern Israel, killing a girl, as the two-week-old crisis showed no signs of letting up, despite frantic diplomatic efforts.

At least four heavy blasts were heard in Beirut, the first Israeli strikes in the city in nearly two days. A gray cloud billowed up from the capital’s southern district, a Hezbollah stronghold that has been heavily bombarded. Nearly daily pounding halted during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit Monday.

Al-Jazeera television said 20 Israeli rockets hit the Dahiyah neighborhood as a quick succession of blasts set off car alarms in central Beirut, miles away, and sirens were heard. More, smaller explosions followed.

Outlining the scope of the Israeli campaign for the first time, a senior army commander said Israel would only encircle Lebanese towns and villages near the border and did not plan a deeper push into the country.

“The intention is to deal with the Hezbollah infrastructure that is within reach,” Col. Hemi Livni, who commands Israeli troops in the western sector of southern Lebanon, told Israel Army Radio, told Israel Army Radio. “That means in southern Lebanon, not going beyond that.”

Rice, in Israel on the second leg of a Middle East tour, maintained the Bush administration’s position that a cease-fire must come with conditions that make an enduring peace, saying the time has come for an urgent end to the violence hanging over the region.

“I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib,” Rice said before meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. “We, of course, also urgently want to end the violence.”

Olmert welcomed Rice warmly and vowed that “Israel is determined to carry on this fight against Hezbollah.” He said his government “will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians for the sole purpose of killing them.”

He later said Israel has the “stamina for a long struggle” and is determined to defeat the Islamic militant group.

With the diplomatic threads for a solution still tangled, the violence looked likely to drag on with a new element after 14 days of bombardment: tough ground fighting as Israeli forces try to move village to village near the border, facing well-armed, determined Islamic militant guerrillas who have been digging in for years.

The U.S., which is pushing for the deployment of international and Lebanese troops in southern Lebanon to stop Hezbollah attacks on Israel, has angered many allies with its support of Israel and resistance to calls for an immediate cease-fire to the hostilities that began with a July 12 Hezbollah attack that killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two.

Arabs will insist on an immediate cease-fire and for the Lebanese government to take control over the militant Hezbollah at an international meeting to be held in Rome on Wednesday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Illah al-Khatib said.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said a cease-fire must be in place before any international troops are sent to Lebanon. Israel has suggested it would accept an international force — preferably from NATO — to ensure the peace in southern Lebanon, but Jung said after meeting his French and Polish counterparts that it was too early to say if the alliance, or a European Union force, could be put in place.

A top Hamas official in Syria said Israeli soldiers held by Hamas and Hezbollah will only be released as part of a prisoner swap.

The official, Mohammad Nazal, also raised the possibility of teaming up with Hezbollah to negotiate terms that would lead to the release of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in Israel in exchange for the three Israeli soldiers — two held by Hezbollah and one by Hamas.

Hundreds of Americans and Russians, meanwhile, were feared stranded in the heart of Lebanon’s war zone after a ship evacuating foreign nationals from the area left the hard-hit southern port of Tyre on Monday evening.

A German official involved in the effort, Erik Rattat, said 300 Americans were trapped southeast of the town, and U.S. officials said they did not know if any of them were able to reach the boat before it left. Moscow said more than 100 Russians and citizens of other ex-Soviet republics also might be trapped.

U.S. officials also said the last scheduled evacuations of Americans from Lebanon would happen Wednesday.

At the front Tuesday, an Israeli military official said troops had surrounded Bint Jbail, a town that has symbolic importance to Hezbollah as one of the centers of resistance to the Israeli occupation 1982-2000.

Israeli forces have seized some houses on the outskirts of the hilltop town since beginning the assault Monday, but do not yet control Bint Jbail, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as a press statement had not been issued.

Up to 200 Hezbollah guerrillas are believed to be defending the town, which lies about 2 1/2 miles north of the Israeli border.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported the fighters were mounting a strong defense. “The resistance fighters are engaged in heroic confrontations with elite troops of the (Israeli) Golani Brigade, who are attempting to advance under heavy bombardment from the air and land,” Al-Manar said.

In a pre-dawn raid, Israeli warplanes destroyed two neighboring houses in Nabatiyeh, which lies 16 miles north of Bint Jbail and has been heavily bombarded in the past few days.

In one house, a man and his wife and their son were killed, said the couple’s daughter, Shireen Hamza, who survived. Three men died in the other house, she said.

While buried under the rubble for 15 minutes, “I just kept screaming, telling my parents to stay alive until help comes,” she said. “My father kept saying to me in a weak voice, ‘Shireen, stay awake. Don’t sleep.'”

Security officials said seven people were killed in the blast. But Nabatiyeh Hospital received six bodies from the strike, said a doctor there, Marwan Ghandour.

At least 70 rockets were fired at northern Israel, and a teenage girl was killed and three other people were injured in the Arab town of Maghar.

One of the rockets fired at the Israeli port city of Haifa hit a bus, another hit a house and two reportedly struck close to a hospital, injuring five people, witnesses and doctors said. One man died of a heart attack while running toward a bomb shelter, Israel Radio said.

Rockets also hit the towns of Kiryat Shemona, Nahariya, Tiberias, Acre and Safed.

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres appealed to the Lebanese people to disarm Hezbollah, and he spoke of seeing “the tough scenes from Lebanon, of your women and children fleeing these days on roads that lead to the unknown.”

“As soon as the war ends, you will find in us what we really are, pursuers of peace, seekers of peace, seekers of hope,” Peres said. “There is not any conflict between Israel and Lebanon.”

He said the Israeli and Lebanese prime ministers could easily solve their countries’ differences if they were to meet.

Israel’s death toll in the conflict stands at 42, including 24 soldiers and 18 civilians, most killed by hundreds of rockets that have been fired by Hezbollah.

At least 391 people have been killed and 1,596 wounded in Lebanon, according to Lebanese security officials. Among them are 20 Lebanese soldiers and at least 11 Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Udi also said Israel has destroyed 100-150 rocket launchers of all types, adding that he couldn’t say how many of Hezbollah’s approximately 12,000 rockets have been destroyed. He also said “dozens” of Hezbollah fighters have been killed.

Humanitarian efforts continued as aid workers rushed to deliver supplies to hard-hit areas, and Olmert said Israel will allow the opening of safe passages for the transport of humanitarian aid to all areas of Lebanon.

A team of Israeli military officials will meet with international military experts to outline the pathways, Olmert told Rice during their meeting, according to his office.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said earlier that an aid convoy could move from Beirut to southern Lebanon on Wednesday if the Israeli army gives final approval. Israel had previously only loosened its blockade of Lebanese ports to let aid ships into Beirut.

Egeland has issued an urgent appeal for $150 million in aid to Lebanon, where tens of thousands of refugees are in temporary shelters, supplies of medicine are tight at many hospitals and fuel is slowly running out.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has decreed donations totaling $1.5 billion to Lebanon, assigning $500 million for its reconstruction and $1 billion to be deposited in Lebanon’s central bank to support the economy.

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