- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel yesterday dropped hundreds of commandos behind enemy lines and pushed deep into southern Lebanon to seize territory from Hezbollah guerrillas before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire takes effect tomorrow morning.

Israel suffered its biggest single-day death toll of the monthlong war, with 24 soldiers killed in clashes, including a five-member crew of a helicoper downed by Hezbollah.

The Syria- and Iran-backed militants joined the Israeli and Lebanese governments in saying they would honor a U.N. resolution calling for a halt to the fighting.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the prime ministers of Lebanon and Israel had agreed to cease firing at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

“Preferably, the fighting should stop now to respect the spirit and intent of the [U.N. Security Council] decision, the object of which was to save civilian lives, to spare the pain and suffering that the civilians on both sides are living through,” Mr. Annan said in announcing the deadline from New York.

Hezbollah, which operates independently of the Lebanese government and is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, was less specific.

The group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said his fighters would abide by the resolution, which was approved by all 15 members of the Security Council on Friday evening. But he also indicated the war was far from over.

Israel said at least 70 of its soldiers had been wounded and more than 40 Hezbollah fighters killed as its troops drove toward the Litani River.

“The operation continues,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni told Israeli public television. “The whole world is looking at us now, and for the political echelon to limit the military would have been interpreted as weakness.”

The Israeli general in charge of the northern command said he hoped the estimated 30,000 troops involved in the expanded offensive launched overnight will have secured control of most of south Lebanon by tomorrow.

“I think we will be in a much better situation than we are today,” Gen. Udi Adam said. “Assuming that the cease-fire will take effect, we will stop the moment we are told. If it doesn’t, we could continue.”

France, Italy, Turkey and New Zealand were among the countries expected to send soldiers to participate in a 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force.

Officials said they hoped the deployment would begin within weeks.

“The resolution is reasonable,” said Matan Vilnai, a member of parliament from Israel’s dovish Labor Party. “With every day Hezbollah is weaker and the missiles are distanced is good for us.”

Hard-liners in Israel criticized the U.N. resolution as worthless.

Likud Party parliament member Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, said the cease-fire document is worse than Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for disarming Hezbollah.

“We wouldn’t have gone in if we knew this would be the decision. It’s a worse situation than when we went in,” he said.

Yesterday’s offensive tripled the number of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah claimed it had destroyed 21 tanks. At least 19 Lebanese civilians died from Israeli air strikes, while Hezbollah rockets wounded eight persons in northern Israel, the Associated Press reported.

The 32-day struggle has claimed nearly 900 lives — including at least 763 in Lebanon and 130 in Israel.

Despite signaling a willingness to accept the U.N. resolution, Sheik Nasrallah said Hezbollah would continue fighting as long as Israeli troops remained in Lebanon, calling it “our natural right.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said his Cabinet endorsed the cease-fire plan despite having reservations. “We will deal with the requirements of the resolution with realism in a way that serves the national interest,” he said.

The Cabinet harshly condemned Israel’s military push, saying it presented a “flagrant challenge” to the international community after the U.N. resolution was adopted.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israeli troops would remain until the international force arrived, and would defend themselves if attacked.

“If anyone dares to use force against Israeli defense forces, we will see this as a violation of the cease-fire agreement,” he said on Israel television.

The Israelis used more than 50 helicopters to ferry hundreds of commandos into Hezbollah territory in the largest such operation in the Middle East since the October 1973 war.

Israeli police said 64 rockets fell on northern Israel yesterday, compared with an average of more than 100 missiles daily for the past two weeks.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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