Tuesday, July 18, 2006

TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spelled out Israel’s terms for ending its six-day siege of Lebanon yesterday, demanding the return of two kidnapped soldiers, an end to rocket attacks on Israel and the deployment of the Lebanese army to keep Hezbollah away from the common border.

The remarks were backed with Israeli air strikes on gas stations, factories and the homes of Hezbollah members across Lebanon which left 48 dead, according to a Reuters news agency count. The Iranian-backed guerrilla group lobbed fresh volleys of Katyusha rockets into northern Israeli towns and cities, including the port city of Haifa.

Blasts rocked Beirut through the day and smoke rose from a blazing fuel depot. In Haifa, a Katyusha strike collapsed the facade of the top two floors of a three-story building, leaving at least two injured. The death toll after nearly a week of fighting stood at 210 Lebanese and 24 Israelis.

As the United States and European countries scrambled to evacuate their nationals from Beirut, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin arrived in the Lebanese capital hoping to spur cease-fire talks. But Israeli leaders said they were determined to continue their offensive as long as necessary.

“There are moments in the life of any nation where it stares reality in the face and says ‘enough,’ ” said Mr. Olmert in his first address to parliament since the fighting began. “So I say to everyone: ‘Enough.’ Israel will not be held hostage to a terrorist gang, nor a terrorist authority.”

The prime minister said he would operate with “all the force” against Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group based in Lebanon, and Hamas, which is holding an Israeli soldier captive in the Gaza Strip. He described the groups as “subcontractors” for an Iranian-Syrian “axis of evil” that exports state-sponsored terrorism.

At the same time, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel wanted to drive Hezbollah away from a narrow buffer zone in southern Lebanon, making it impossible for the militia to stage cross-border raids like the one in which two soldiers were seized last week.

Israel sustained its military offensive with air and artillery strikes against at least 60 targets, with fresh explosions shaking Beirut’s southern suburbs last night. In one of the deadliest, nine civilians, including two children, were killed in an attack on a bridge near the southern port city of Sidon, according to Lebanese officials.

Israel briefly sent three tanks into Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah positions near the border, a United Nations source told the Associated Press. Israeli press reports have said that Israel is pursuing a four-stage plan and that the final stage is expected to include the insertion of ground troops into Lebanon.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Israel’s offensive had inflicted billions of dollars of damage. “What Israel has been doing is cutting the country to pieces,” he told Reuters.

Hezbollah, for its part, penetrated ever deeper inside Israel with its rockets, which Israel says are provided by Iran and Syria. One missile hit the town of Afula, 30 miles inside Israel; another injured six persons when it struck next to a hospital in Safed. At least 11 towns were hit, but no Israelis were killed.

Israel eased a naval blockade of Beirut to permit ships to evacuate foreign nationals. The Orient Queen, a cruise ship chartered by the Pentagon, was to dock today escorted by a warship to remove some of the estimated 25,000 U.S. citizens in the country.

At least 100 members of the North Carolina-based 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are in the region aboard amphibious landing ships, the AP said, but only 64 Americans so far have been evacuated. Others have left overland through Syria, which has offered to facilitate them.

France yesterday removed about 700 people aboard a chartered cruise ship, and Italy evacuated 350, most of them Europeans.

The Lebanese buffer zone proposed by Israel would extend for less than a mile and be enforced from the air and by armored divisions at the border rather than ground forces stationed inside Lebanon, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman said.

She described the zone as an “initial” measure and said Israel wouldn’t force an evacuation of Lebanese civilians from the region.

“No one on the Israeli side wants to return to the status quo ante, where you go to the northern border and you see Hezbollah flags instead of Lebanese flags and Hezbollah soldiers instead of Lebanese soldiers,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Israel used infantry units to maintain a 13-mile-wide buffer strip in southern Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s to protect its cities from Hezbollah rocket and mortar attacks. The zone was dismantled when Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

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