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Israel Prepares Wider Ground Offensive

CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA Associated Press Writer

Israel prepares wider ground offensive; Prime minister reportedly unhappy with emerging deal

JERUSALEM, Aug. 11, 2006

(AP) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided Friday to launch an expanded ground offensive in southern Lebanon after expressing dissatisfaction over an emerging cease-fire deal at the United Nations, government officials said. Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz made the decision after meeting for several hours.

Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes pounded south Beirut and border crossings to Syria, killing at least 14 people across Lebanon as ground fighting picked up intensity in the south.

It was not immediately clear whether Israel was trying to pressure the U.N. Security Council, which was close to a vote on a cease-fire resolution, or whether Israel is really determined to send troops deeper into Lebanon.

Israel is upset about apparent last-minute changes in the text, which would seem to weaken the mandate of a multinational force, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they is not authorized to discuss the contents of the Olmert-Peretz meeting.

Jets struck twice at a busy bridge at the Abboudiyeh border crossing into Syria, killing at least 12 people and wounding 18 others, hospital and security officials said. The checkpoint is some 10 miles inland from the Mediterranean coast, on Lebanon's northern border.

Hezbollah TV reported Friday that guerrillas destroyed an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Tyre, killing or wounding the crew of 12.

The Israeli army said it was not aware of a strike on any of its vessels, which have been enforcing a blockade of the Lebanese coast since fighting began 30 days ago. Larger craft have repeatedly fired shells against Hezbollah positions and strongholds, including in south Beirut.

Israel also struck an area close to the Lebanese border crossing at Masnaa in the Bekaa Valley, about 30 miles southeast of Beirut, but there were no reports of casualties. Masnaa is the main border crossing with Syria, and has been closed after four previous strikes. It was the main escape route for hundreds of foreigners and displaced Lebanese who fled the country over land.

Only one other official border crossing, at the northern coastal town of Arida, is open.

Israeli warplanes also struck three vehicles near the eastern city of Baalbek, killing at least one person and wounding two others, security officials said. Witnesses said the vehicles were directly hit and caught fire. It was unclear whether they were cars or pickup trucks _ a frequent target of Israeli raids.

A drone fired a missile at a motorbike on the southern coastal highway between Sidon and Tyre, killing its driver, security officials said. Jets also hit roads and residential areas near the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, flattening a deserted house there, they said. It was unclear if its owner, Zaino Yassin, was a Hezbollah activist, they said.

Israeli warplanes struck roads and villages in mountainous areas in the southeastern part of the Bekaa Valley as well, security officials said. No casualties were reported.

At least 20 explosions rang out across the Lebanese capital as thick black smoke rose from the southern suburbs. Hezbollah said it unleashed "a new barrage of rockets on Haifa" in response. Later the group said it fired at the Israeli towns of Kiryat Shemona, Nahariya, Avivim, Kfar Giladi, Margelot and Metulla "in response to the continuing Zionist attacks on Lebanese civilians."

Warplanes returned to the capital midday and sent missiles into Chiah, a south Beirut neighborhood where at least 41 people were killed in a strike Monday. Friday's attack came a day after Israeli jets dropped leaflets over Beirut, warning Chiah residents to leave. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

In another statement, Hezbollah said its fighters killed or wounded about 15 Israeli soldiers trying to advance toward the border village of Aita al-Shaab. "The remaining soldiers retreated under the cover of artillery shelling," the statement said. Aita al-Shaab is one of several Lebanese border towns where gunbattles have been raging for weeks between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas.

The group later said it killed four Israeli soldiers in Qantara, about 5 miles from the Israeli border. Hezbollah said its guerrillas inflicted casualties on Israeli forces in the village of Rachaf as well, some 9 miles from the border.

"The Islamic Resistance (Hezbollah) has since early morning been engaged in fierce clashes (with Israeli troops) on the southwestern outskirts of Rachaf. By 9:40 a.m., the (Israeli) enemy was trying to evacuate its casualties from the battlefield," Hezbollah said in a statement broadcast on its Al-Manar television.

Fighting also continued in Beit Yahoun, with Hezbollah saying it destroyed an Israeli tank and bulldozer, killing or wounding their crews. The town is about 7 miles from the Israeli border.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on Hezbollah's statements.

An Associated Press reporter in the southern port city of Tyre heard a huge sonic boom over the town early Friday, likely from Israeli jet fighters breaking the sound barrier overhead.


MMVI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.


:: Article nr. 25661 sent on 11-aug-2006 19:03 ECT

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Link: www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/11/ap/world/mainD8JEADGO0.shtml



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