August 10, 2006

Israelis seize Christian towns in south Lebanon

By Karamallah Daher

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon (Reuters) - Israeli troops seized the
Christian towns of Marjayoun and Qlaiah in south Lebanon on
Thursday, witnesses said, even though Israel says it has put
off plans for a broader offensive against Hizbollah guerrillas.

A Reuters journalist said Israeli troops had moved on foot
through Marjayoun, about 8 km (5 miles) inside Lebanon, as well
as Qlaiah and the nearby village of Burj al-Molouk.

They were followed by tanks which deployed on roads nearby,
drawing intense Hizbollah rocket and mortar fire.

"I can see two tanks burning some 500 meters from
Marjayoun," one resident told Reuters by telephone.

A third tank arrived later and removed several casualties,
he said, adding that Hizbollah fighters were raining rocket and
mortar fire on the Israeli force between Marjayoun and Khiam.

Hizbollah said in a statement it had destroyed 11 Israeli
tanks, killing or wounding their crews, in fighting in the
area. It said it had knocked out two more two tanks near the
village of Ainata to the west. Israel's army had no immediate

Marjayoun, a town of 3,000, served as the headquarters of
the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army militia during Israel's
22-year occupation of the region that ended in 2000. Qlaiah has
a population of about 7,000, according to U.N. figures.

An Israeli cabinet minister said plans for an expanded
ground offensive, approved on Wednesday, had been put on hold
to allow more time for U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to bear

"There is a certain diplomatic process under way," Tourism
Minister Yitzhak Herzog said. "We can allow a little more time
to see if there's a possibility for a diplomatic process."

Herzog, a member of Israel's security cabinet, made clear
the military option would go ahead if talks failed.

"If there won't be a diplomatic solution, there will be a
need to remove this threat," he told Israel's Army Radio,
referring to more than 3,300 Hizbollah rockets fired into
northern Israel since hostilities erupted on July 12.

An Israeli military source said the incursion in the
eastern sector aimed to stop Hizbollah firing rockets at the
northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona from the Khiam border


The new thrust into Lebanon occurred hours after
Hizbollah's chief vowed to turn the south into a graveyard for
the invaders.

But Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also said Hizbollah supported a
Lebanese government decision to send 15,000 troops to the
border if that would promote a peaceful solution.

"If everyone sees that deploying the army will help find a
way out politically that would result in the halting of
aggression ... this for us is a national and honorable way
out," he said in a televised address.

Hizbollah, which has controlled the south since Israeli
occupation troops left in 2000, has long resisted international
pressure on Lebanon to deploy the army to the south.

The U.N. Security Council has been divided over a
resolution aimed at halting the fighting and stabilizing the
area with the deployment of an international force to back the
Lebanese army.

Lebanon wants an immediate ceasefire and a swift Israeli
withdrawal. Israel says it will fight on until foreign troops
and the Lebanese army move in -- a stance backed by Washington,
which fears a security vacuum that could let Hizbollah regroup.

France, which may lead the foreign force, does not want it
to deploy before a ceasefire and a political agreement.

No Security Council vote seems imminent.

"There are areas where we are still not in agreement," the
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said late
on Wednesday. "I don't want to appear to minimize that."

The war has cost the lives of at least 1,011 people in
Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 116 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

The Israeli army said 15 of its soldiers and 40 Hizbollah
guerrillas had been killed on Wednesday, one of the bloodiest
days of fighting in the conflict that began after Hizbollah
captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid last

Israel's security cabinet has approved plans to send troops
further into Lebanon, possibly to the Litani river, up to 20 km
(13 miles) from the border. A senior political source said the
expanded offensive could last 30 days.

An Israeli air strike killed a motorcyclist near Tyre on
Thursday and another air raid hit the offices of a Hizbollah
charity in the southern port city, a Reuters journalist said.

One civilian was killed when an Israeli strike damaged two
cars in the Bekaa Valley. Hizbollah fired a few rockets at
northern Israeli without causing any casualties.

(Additional reporting by Beirut, Jerusalem, United Nations,
Washington and Dubai bureaux)