- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

IBL EL-SAQI, Lebanon — Israel grabbed strategic high ground in southern Lebanon yesterday but delayed a major push north, as diplomats cited progress on a U.N. cease-fire resolution that could go to a vote soon.

An Israeli soldier was killed and two were wounded in fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas yesterday, a day after the Israeli military suffered its worst one-day military loss, with 15 soldiers killed. More than 800 people have died in the monthlong conflict, including 715 in Lebanon.

With Israeli troops closer to Beirut than at any time since the war began, diplomats said they were close to breaking the stalemate over a U.N. effort toward a cease-fire. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, said the vote could be today.

The United States and France have been trying to bridge differences over a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

However, Russia’s U.N. ambassador said he would introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a 72-hour humanitarian truce because of long delays in U.S.-France efforts to seek a cease-fire.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he would press for a quick truce because no deal had been reached in the 15-nation council on the final wording of a draft calling for an end to the fighting and setting out broad principles for a political solution to the conflict.

“Unfortunately, we at this point came to the conclusion that we do not have an immediate prospect of this resolution being accepted,” Mr. Churkin told reporters.

Israeli ground troops took control of the mainly Christian town of Marjayoun before dawn and blasted away throughout the day at strongly fortified Hezbollah positions in several directions.

A huge explosion rocked the center of the town and the surrounding countryside about sunset, and a big fire could be seen raging from Ibl el-Saqi, about two miles to the east.

By taking Marjayoun, the Israeli army was closer to Beirut than at any time since the fighting began July 12 after a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three.

At the same time, the army was still within about five miles of the Israeli border. Marjayoun, which sits near major road junctions in the south, lies north of Israel’s Galilee panhandle that juts north into Lebanon.

Marjayoun was used as the command center for the Israeli army and its allied Lebanese militia during an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000. The high ground around Marjayoun, including the village of Blatt, overlooks the Litani River valley, one of the staging sites for Hezbollah’s relentless rocket assaults on Israel.

Interim Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said about 350 Lebanese soldiers and police garrisoned in Marjayoun were taken into custody. Residents said the Israelis also took over one building in the barracks, locked up the ammunition and weapons depot and took away the keys.

An Israel military spokeswoman said troops advised the Lebanese to remain in the building for their own safety.

Diplomatic efforts had stalled as the Lebanese called for Israeli troops to start pulling out once hostilities end and Beirut sends 15,000 troops of its own to the south, while Israel has insisted on staying in southern Lebanon until a robust international force is deployed, which could take weeks or months.

The Israeli Security Cabinet authorized Mr. Olmert to expand the offensive in Lebanon, but Israeli officials said they would hold off to give diplomacy more time to work.

When asked in Washington whether Israel’s decision was a result of U.S. pressure, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “The Israeli government makes its own decisions about military operations and what it does to act in its own self-defense. Those are decisions for Israeli leaders to make.”

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned Israel was ready to use “all of the tools” to cripple Hezbollah if efforts toward a cease-fire failed.

Israel reported one of its soldiers was killed and two were wounded in Qleia, just south of Marjayoun, when Hezbollah guerrillas fired a missile at a tank. Hezbollah reported killing as many as 16 Israeli soldiers and destroying 18 tanks.

Two Israeli civilians also died in Hezbollah rocket attacks, an Arab-Israeli mother and her young daughter in the village of Deir al-Assad. Israel reported that 160 Hezbollah rockets landed during the day.

In Beirut, Israeli warplanes blanketed the downtown area with leaflets that threatened a “painful and strong” response to Hezbollah attacks and warned residents to evacuate three southern suburbs. Other warnings dropped from planes said any trucks on a key northern highway to Syria would be considered targets for attack.

Earlier, missiles from Israeli helicopter gunships blasted the top of a historic lighthouse in central Beirut in an apparent attempt to knock out a broadcast antenna for Lebanese state television.

Top U.N. humanitarian official Jan Egeland criticized Israel and Hezbollah for hindering the delivery of aid to civilians trapped in southern Lebanon.

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