- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

BEIRUT — Israeli air strikes killed 13 persons in one southern Lebanon town yesterday as diplomats at the United Nations struggled to keep a peace plan from collapsing over Arab demands for an immediate Israeli withdrawal. Military planners in Jerusalem said they will push even deeper into Lebanon to target rocket sites. Israel declared a no-drive zone in the entire region south of Lebanon’s Litani River — 20 miles from the border — warning residents that any vehicle on the roads would be destroyed on the assumption it was carrying Hezbollah rockets or supplies. The order left the streets of Tyre, the region’s main city, empty and civilians in villages across the south unable to flee. Attempts to draw a cease-fire blueprint came down to a test between a step-by-step proposal backed by Washington and Lebanon’s insistence — supported by Arab allies — that nothing can happen before Israeli soldiers leave. In New York, Arab envoys and U.N. Security Council members tried to hammer out a compromise. Israel shuffled its high command, naming a new top commander for its Lebanon war effort yesterday and effectively demoting another general after criticism of the army’s handling of the four-week-old offensive. The military said that Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, a veteran of previous Lebanon campaigns, was named “to coordinate the Israeli army’s operations in Lebanon.” Israeli commentators saw the move as effectively pushing aside Gen. Udi Adam, head of northern command, at a time when some Israelis are asking why the region’s mightiest army has failed to halt Hezbollah rocket fire after 28 days of fighting. In Beirut, the embattled Lebanese government was hoping yesterday to secure Israel’s agreement to a cease-fire and a pullout of its troops from Lebanon by offering to send 15,000 soldiers to the southern border with Israel and the stronghold of Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said the decision to deploy the army will help “the Lebanese state to be the sole authority in the country … and ensure that there would not be weapons beside those of the Lebanese state.” The proposed deployment was conditioned on an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanese territory. Israel cautiously welcomed the Lebanese proposal but ordered its army to prepare for an expanded ground offensive if diplomatic efforts fail. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Beirut’s offer to send troops to southern Lebanon if Israeli forces withdraw “an interesting step that we have to study.” Also yesterday the Lebanese prime minister praised Hezbollah’s resistance, but said it was time for Lebanon to “impose its full control, authority and presence” over the war-weary country. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Lebanese forces “would need to be supported by international forces.” He added: “It certainly is a significant proposal.” Mr. McCormack said the United States was ready to put more than $10 million into training and equipping the Lebanese armed forces, to beef up their capacity to counter the Hezbollah guerrillas. In the rocky hills of southern Lebanon, ground fighting continued in attempts to control key villages and territory near the border, including sites used for Hezbollah rocket barrages that have reached deep into Israel in the heaviest Arab-Israeli battles in 24 years. At least 145 Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel by midafternoon. Israeli artillery and air strikes pounded a broad swath of southern Lebanon from the Mediterranean coast to inland valleys — including many areas in the Hezbollah heartland now under a blanket curfew imposed by Israel to try to choke off arms routes. Israeli warplanes hit buildings in Ghaziyeh, a Shi’ite town southeast of Sidon, killing 13 persons inside just minutes after a funeral procession of 1,500 in nearby streets, hospital officials said. Another 18 persons were wounded. The funeral was for 15 persons killed in air strikes Monday that flattened three buildings. The latest casualties brought the number of persons killed in Lebanon to at least 684, while the Israeli death toll was 100. The Israeli air force shot down a Hezbollah drone for the first time Monday, sending its wreckage plunging into the sea, the army said. Israeli press reported that the unmanned aircraft had the capacity to carry 90 pounds of explosives, nearly as much as the more powerful rockets Hezbollah has been firing into Israel for the last 27 days. Unlike the rockets, however, the drone has a guidance system for accurate targeting. The army said it was the first time Israel had downed a Hezbollah drone, though it was the third time the Islamic militant group had tried to send an unmanned vehicle into Israeli airspace since November 2004. In a southern suburb of Beirut, workers yesterday pulled 20 bodies from the rubble of two buildings hit by a rocket on Monday, raising the death toll from that strike to 30. That attack came just hours after Arab League foreign ministers wrapped up a crisis meeting that threw their full diplomatic weight behind Lebanon. It set the baseline demand for the Security Council: a full Israeli withdrawal or no peace deal is possible. The message was given in an emotional address by Mr. Siniora and carried to the U.N. by Arab League envoys. The move was an attempt to show that Lebanon has the will and ability to assert control over its south, where Hezbollah rules with near autonomy bolstered by channels of aid and weapons from Iran and Syria. Lebanon has avoided any attempt to implement a two-year-old U.N. resolution calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, fearing it could touch off civil unrest. The original proposal, drafted by the United States and France, demanded a “full cessation of hostilities” on both sides and a buffer zone patrolled by Lebanese forces and U.N. troops. But the plan did not specifically call for an Israeli withdrawal. Critics said it would give room for Israeli defensive operations. In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council said it plans to convene a special session this week to consider taking action against Israel for its Lebanon offensive. • Staff writer Sharon Behn in Washington contributed to this report.

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