- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

BEIRUT — Israeli troops sealed off a Hezbollah stronghold yesterday and widened their foothold in southern Lebanon, but officials said Israeli bombs killed six persons in a southern Lebanon town and two U.N. observers in a border outpost, with two other peacekeepers feared dead.

Two weeks into the war, a senior Hezbollah leader said the guerrillas had not expected such an Israeli onslaught when they captured two Israeli soldiers July 12.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other key Middle East players gathered in Rome for a meeting today to discuss proposals for ending the fighting that has killed more than 400. Key issues were how to disarm Hezbollah and assemble an international peacekeeping force to enforce the peace along the Israel-Lebanon border.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the strike on a clearly marked U.N. outpost was “apparently deliberate” and demanded that Israel investigate. A bomb dropped by an Israeli warplane scored a direct hit on the post in the town of Khiyam, near the eastern sector of the border, U.N. officials said.

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman expressed his “deep regret” for the deaths and denied that Israel hit the post intentionally.

“I am shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement of the secretary-general, insinuating that Israel has deliberately targeted the U.N. post,” he said, calling the assertions “premature and erroneous.”

Israeli commanders said they would not push deep into Lebanon but were determined to stop Hezbollah missiles that have continued despite Israel’s punishing raids on Hezbollah targets. A new volley of Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel, killing a teenage girl.

Yesterday marked a month since the start of what is now a two-front war between Israel and Islamic militants. On June 25, an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas militants in Gaza, prompting an Israeli offensive there. Two weeks into that flare-up, Hezbollah abducted the two other soldiers.

The crisis has spiraled beyond imaginations.

Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of the Hezbollah politburo, said the guerrillas’ leadership had not expected a massive offensive when it captured the two Israeli soldiers.

“The truth is — let me say this clearly — we didn’t even expect [this] response … that [Israel] would exploit this operation for this big war against us,” he said.

Instead, he said, Hezbollah had thought Israel would respond to the soldiers’ capture by abducting Hezbollah leaders in commando raids and that negotiations for a swap would start, giving Hezbollah the chance to try to win the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

He called the Israeli assault unjustified and said Hezbollah would not lay down its weapons.

Israel and the United States say their ultimate aim is to fundamentally reshape Lebanon to end Hezbollah’s presence by the border, strengthen democracy in the country and ensure lasting peace with Israel. In the process, Lebanon has been ravaged, with hundreds killed, nearly a half-million driven from their homes and vast damage to roads and bridges.

Israel is facing tougher than expected resistance as it makes its first small ground steps into hilltop villages across the border. Its troops sealed the town of Bint Jbail and battled for a second day yesterday against about 200 guerrillas inside.

Troops also moved on the nearby village of Yaroun, fighting guerrillas there. Fifteen Americans fled Yaroun in a convoy of 80 cars carrying residents that reached the southern port of Tyre yesterday.

Hezbollah reported two guerrillas killed in the day’s fighting, while Israel said three of its soldiers were wounded. The Israeli military said Hezbollah’s commander for the central border sector, known as Abu Jafr, was killed.

So far, the three villages on which Israeli ground troops have advanced — Bint Jbail, Yaroun and Maroun al-Ras, which was seized by soldiers over the weekend — are in a roughly 3-square-mile pocket. Israeli bombardment also has destroyed most Hezbollah observer posts all along the border, U.N. observers say.

Israel suggested that would grow, but the extent was not clear.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would maintain a security zone in the south until either a multinational force “with enforcement capability” is deployed on the border or Hezbollah is pushed back in a cease-fire agreement that also cuts off the supply of its weapons.

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