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Battles Rage in Southern Lebanon
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Battles between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas raged Tuesday across southern Lebanon as diplomats at the United Nations struggled to keep a peace plan from collapsing over Arab demands for an immediate Israeli withdrawal.

Military planners in Jerusalem, meanwhile, said they plan to push even deeper into Lebanon to target rocket sites.

Attempts to negotiate a cease-fire have come down to a step-by-step proposal backed by Washington and Lebanon's insistence - supported by Arab nations - that nothing can happen before Israeli soldiers leave the country. Arab diplomats and UN Security Council members were to meet later Tuesday at the UN in New York to try to hammer out a compromise.

Lebanon has also put an offer on the table, pledging up to 15,000 troops to a peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon after Israel pulls back. The plan had added significance since it was backed by the two Hezbollah members on Lebanon's Cabinet - apparently showing a willingness for a pact by the Islamic militants and their main sponsors, Iran and Syria.

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, on Tuesday called the proposed Lebanese troop deployment "interesting" and said Israel would favor leaving southern Lebanon once it considers that Hezbollah is no longer a direct threat.

But the rocky hills of southern Lebanon provided a different picture. Ground fighting continued to rage in villages and strategic ridges near the Israeli border, including sites used by Hezbollah for rocket barrages that have reached deep into Israel.

Fierce skirmishes broke out around the village of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold that Israel has tried to control for weeks. An Israeli solider and 15 Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in the fighting, the army said. The militant group was not immediately available for comment.

Hezbollah TV also reported pre-dawn attacks on Israeli forces near the Mediterranean city of Naqoura, about 2 1/2 miles north of the border. The report claimed there were Israeli casualties.

The Israeli army confirmed clashes and casualties in western Lebanon, but did not say whether it or Hezbollah had suffered losses.

Israel also expanded airstrikes around Lebanon, including the Hezbollah heartland in the Bekka Valley.

The clashes followed one of the bloodiest days of the four-week-long conflict. At least three Israeli soldiers and 49 Lebanese died Monday - including 10 in a rocket attack in a Beirut suburb just hours after Arab League foreign ministers wrapped up a crisis meeting that threw its full diplomatic weight behind Lebanon.

The group set a baseline demand for the Security Council: a full Israeli withdrawal or no peace deal is possible. The message was given in a tearful address by Lebanon's prime minister, Fuad Saniora, and carried to the United Nations by Arab League envoys.

Saniora's government voted unanimously to send 15,000 troops to stand between Israel and Hezbollah should a cease-fire take hold and Israeli forces withdraw.

The move was an attempt to show that Lebanon has the will and ability to assert control over its south, where Hezbollah rules with near autonomy bolstered by channels of aid and weapons from Iran and Syria. Lebanon has avoided any attempt to implement a 2-year-old UN resolution calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, fearing it could touch off widespread unrest.

But now the prospect of a protracted war with Israel is even more worrisome.

The coming days should offer signs on whether a cease-fire plan has a chance.

The original proposal, drafted by the United States and France, demanded a "full cessation of hostilities" on both sides and a buffer zone in southern Lebanon patrolled by Lebanese forces and UN troops. But the plan did not specifically call for a withdrawal. Critics said it would give room for Israeli defensive operations.

France's UN ambassador, Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, promised Monday to take into account Lebanon's stance. But he did not say whether France was prepared to add such language to the text.

Washington and Paris were expected to circulate a new draft in response to amendments proposed by Qatar, the only Arab nation on the 15-nation Security Council, and other members, diplomats said. A vote is not expected before Wednesday at the earliest.

The proposed changes include a call for Israeli forces to pull out of Lebanon once the fighting stops and hand over their positions to UN peacekeepers. Arab states also want the UN to take control of the disputed Chebaa Farms area, which Israel seized in 1967.

Qatar's foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, warned of "a civil war in Lebanon" between Hezbollah and government forces if the Security Council does not make changes to the US-French draft resolution. "This is what we don't want to happen and Lebanon won't bear it," he said, speaking on the Al-Jazeera network.

In Texas, President Bush said Monday that any cease-fire must prevent Hezbollah from strengthening its grip in southern Lebanon, asserting "it's time to address root causes of problems." He urged the United Nations to work quickly to approve the US-French draft resolution.

Israel, meanwhile, sent mixed signals.

Olmert said the government was studying Lebanon's pledge to contribute troops to a potential peacekeeping force.

But hours earlier, Defense Minister Amir Peretz outlined plans to drive deeper into Lebanon to try to destroy Hezbollah rocket batteries - which have kept up a near relentless barrage on northern Israel and forced people in some areas to only venture out of bomb shelters for supplies.

Peretz said a new Israeli push - expected to be approved by Israel's Security Cabinet on Wednesday - would extend as far as the Litani River, about 18 miles north of the border.

The Israeli army said it declared an indefinite curfew on the movement of vehicles south of the Litani. Humanitarian traffic would be allowed, but other vehicles would be at risk if they ignored the order, the army said.

Besides Hezbollah's rocket arsenal, Israel also is facing new threats.

On Monday, the Israeli air force shot down a Hezbollah drone for the first time, sending its wreckage plunging into the sea, the army said. Israeli media reported that the unmanned aircraft had the capacity to carry 90 pounds of explosives, nearly as much as the more powerful rockets Hezbollah has been firing into Israel.

Unlike the rockets, the drone has a guidance system to for accurate targeting.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies August 9, 2006)

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