Israel readies to push further into Lebanese territory

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT - Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon on Friday and the army prepared for a possible push further into Lebanese territory to drive out Hizbollah which threatened to launch rockets further into Israel if central Beirut were hit.

As world powers worked on a UN resolution to end the 24-day-long conflict between the Jewish state and the Lebanese guerrilla group, Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah threatened to target Tel Aviv if Israel attacked central Beirut.

"If you strike Beirut, the Islamic Resistance will strike Tel Aviv and it is able to do so," Nasrallah said, in the first apparent confirmation that Hizbollah has missiles capable of hitting the city 130 km from the border.

Israeli television quoted a senior military source as saying Israel would destroy Lebanon's infrastructure, already pounded by air strikes, if Nasrallah's threat was carried out.

Hizbollah killed four soldiers and eight other Israelis on Thursday, the deadliest day yet for Israel in 24 days of war.

Israeli warplanes replied with airstrikes on Hizbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, already pounded earlier in the war.

Leaflets dropped over the suburbs had warned residents to leave parts of the area on Thursday.

Air strikes also hit targets across southern Lebanon and near Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, witnesses said.

Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday ordered the army to prepare for a possible push north to Lebanon's Litani river 20 km north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Launching a ground offensive as far as the Litani would need the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet, since it would mean sending forces well beyond a planned "security zone".

The army said it had so far carved out a zone containing 20 villages 6 to 7 km from the border.

Major Zvika Golan, spokesman for the Israeli northern command, said the army had a plan to clear a 15 km security area in southern Lebanon, if authorised.

Nasrallah offered to stop the rocket barrage if Israel ended attacks on civilian areas in Lebanon.

Hizbollah, which triggered the war on July 12 by capturing two Israeli soldiers, has killed 68 Israelis, including 41 soldiers. Hizbollah wants to swap the soldiers for prisoners held by Israel.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said on Thursday the war had killed 900 people in Lebanon and wounded 3000. He said a million Lebanese, a quarter of the population, had been displaced. The Reuters tally of deaths is 687.

The United States, France and Britain hope for a UN Security Council resolution within days that will call for a truce and maybe strengthen existing UN peacekeepers until a more robust force can be formed, UN officials said.

But splits between the United States and France, a possible leader of the new force, over the timing of a ceasefire have complicated diplomatic efforts to halt the war.

France's UN ambassador said he was less confident that a Security Council resolution could be adopted within days.

The United States and France, diplomats said, are ironing out differences on an initial resolution calling for a truce, a buffer zone and the disarmament of Hizbollah.

But Paris has insisted it will not send troops without a truce and an agreement in principle on the framework for a long-term peace deal by Israel, Hizbollah and the Beirut government. Washington wants a force as soon as fighting stops.

Once fighting ended, talks would begin at the UN on a second resolution for a permanent ceasefire all combatants could accept and authorising an international force in the south.

- REUTERS

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