Israel Bombs Kill 6 People, 3 UN Observers
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Israeli troops sealed off a Hezbollah stronghold Tuesday and widened their foothold in southern Lebanon, as Israeli bombs killed six people in a south Lebanon town and three U.N. observers in a border outpost with another feared dead.
Two weeks into the war, a senior Hezbollah leader said the guerrillas had not expected such an Israeli onslaught when they snatched two Israeli soldiers July 12.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other key Mideast players gathered in Rome for a meeting Wednesday to discuss proposals for ending the fighting that has claimed more than 400 lives. Key issues were how to disarm Hezbollah and assemble an international peacekeeping force to enforce the peace along the Israel-Lebanon frontier.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said, meanwhile, that Israel would maintain a security zone in the south until either a multinational force ``with enforcement capability″ is deployed on the border or Hezbollah is pushed back in a cease-fire agreement that also cuts off the supply of its weapons.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the strike on a clearly marked U.N. border outpost was ``apparently deliberate″ and demanded Israel investigate. A bomb dropped by an Israel warplane scored a direct hit on the post in the town of Khiam, near the eastern sector of the border, U.N. officials said.
Annan said two observers were killed with two more feared dead. Later, a U.N. official confirmed that a third body had been recovered. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
One of the dead was identified as Chinese U.N. observer Du Zhaoyu, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Israel’s ambassador to Beijing was summoned Wednesday morning and asked to convey China’s request that Israel fully investigate the incident and issue an apology to the victim’s relatives.
``We are deeply shocked by this incident and strongly condemn it,″ Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in the statement.
The other three observers were from Austria, Canada and Finland but it wasn’t clear which two were confirmed killed, U.N. and Lebanese military officials said.
Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman expressed his ``deep regret″ for the deaths and denied Israel hit the post intentionally.
``I am shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement of the secretary-general, insinuating that Israel has deliberately targeted the U.N. post,″ he said, calling the assertions ``premature and erroneous.″
Israeli commanders said they would not push deep into Lebanon but were determined to stop Hezbollah missiles that have continued despite Israel’s punishing raids on Hezbollah targets. A new volley of Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel, killing a teenage girl, and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, issued a taped television message saying guerrillas would now start firing rockets deeper into Israel.
Tuesday marked a month since the start of what is now a two-front war between Israel and Islamic militants. On June 25, an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas militants in Gaza, prompting an Israeli offensive there. Two weeks into that flare-up, Hezbollah snatched the two other soldiers.
In that month, the crisis has spiraled far beyond anyone’s imagining.
Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of the Hezbollah politburo, told The Associated Press here that the guerrilla’s leadership had not expected a massive offensive when it snatched the two Israeli soldiers.
``The truth is _ let me say this clearly _ we didn’t even expect (this) response ... that (Israel) would exploit this operation for this big war against us,″ he said.
Instead, he said Hezbollah had thought Israel would respond to the soldiers’ capture by snatching Hezbollah leaders in commando raids and that negotiations for a swap would start, giving Hezbollah the chance to try to win the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
He called the Israeli assault ``unjustified″ and said Hezbollah would not lay down its weapons.
Israel and the United States say their ultimate aim is to fundamentally reshape Lebanon to end Hezbollah’s presence by the border, strengthen democracy in the country and ensure lasting peace with Israel. In the process, Lebanon has been ravaged, with hundreds killed, nearly a half-million driven from their homes and vast damage to roads and bridges.
Israel is facing tougher than expected resistance as it makes it first small ground steps into hilltop villages across the border. Its troops sealed the town of Bint Jbail and battled for a second day Tuesday against around 200 guerrillas inside.
Troops also moved on the nearby village of Yaroun, fighting guerrillas there. Fifteen Americans fled Yaroun in a convoy of 80 cars carrying residents that reached the southern port of Tyre on Tuesday.
Hezbollah reported two guerrillas killed in the day’s fighting, while Israel said three of its soldiers were wounded. The Israeli military said Hezbollah’s commander for the central border sector, known as Abu Jafr, was killed.
So far the three villages that Israeli ground troops have advanced on _ Bint Jbail, Yaroun and Maroun al-Ras, which was seized by soldiers over the weekend _ are in a roughly 3-square-mile pocket. Israeli bombardment has also destroyed most Hezbollah observer posts all along the border, U.N. observers say.
Israel suggested that would grow _ but the extent was unclear.
Israeli army commanders said Israeli ground troops would not push deep into Lebanon, but instead aim to kill as many Hezbollah fighters as possible and push others away from the border.
``We are very much dealing with the villages and towns close to the border,″ Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan said. ``Our aim is not to occupy the territory.″
Israeli warplanes bombed Beirut on Tuesday for the first time in nearly two days after pausing during Rice’s stopover in the Lebanese capital. A string of huge explosions raised a pall of smoke from Beirut’s southern districts, and Israel said it was hitting 10 Hezbollah residences.
In a pre-dawn raid, Israeli warplanes destroyed two neighboring houses in Nabatiyeh, which is 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.‴
Komati said 25 of his fighters had been killed as of Monday, and the group said two more died in ground fighting Tuesday _ raising the previously announced toll of 11. Later in the day, Hezbollah announced the deaths of two more fighters, bringing the toll to at least 27.
Israel claims Hezbollah is greatly underreporting its casualties and says dozens have died.
Despite estimates of the number of Hezbollah militants that Israel claims were killed and the number that Hezbollah asserts were killed, there was no way to accurately determine the number or often distinguish between civilians and fighters.
Along with its daily press reports tracking major violence, the U.N. observers along the Israel-Lebanese border, known as the Blue Line, keep close track of individual incidents.
Those figures, which do not include attacks far to the north, give a rare snapshot into the intensity of the violence in southern Lebanon.
There were, for example, at least 73 acts of violence near the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon on July 24 alone, including 45 air raids and artillery strikes by Israel and 12 missile launches from Hezbollah.
That was in addition to numerous clashes around the town of Bint Jbail, a town known for its intense support of Hezbollah.
AP correspondents Hamza Hendawi in Nabatiyeh and Sheherezade Faramarzi in Beirut contributed to this story.