Lebanese toll rises to 204

ISRAELI AIR STRIKES killed 42 people across Lebanon on Monday, including 10 civilians hit on a southern bridge, on the sixth day of a bombardment that has wreaked the heaviest destruction in Lebanon for over 20 years.

Rescuers also pulled nine bodies from the wreckage of a building in the southern city of Tyre that was bombed on Sunday, raising the death toll since Israel’s offensive to 204, all but 14 of them civilian.

Israeli planes hit coastal targets in the north and south, struck Beirut and damaged homes in the east belonging to members of Hizbollah, which fired more rockets deep into Israel.

Blasts rocked Beirut through the day and smoke rose from a blazing fuel depot. Civilian installations, petrol stations and factories elsewhere were also hit, security sources said.

“I can’t believe they are doing all this for two captives. This is just an excuse,” said Ali Sharara, 21, who fled his home in south Beirut to sleep in a city park for the last two nights.

Hizbollah fired dozens of rockets at the Israeli city of Haifa on Monday and medics said a three-storey building collapsed, wounding two people. Israel closed Haifa’s port.

Twenty-four Israelis have been killed in the fighting, including 12 civilians hit in rocket attacks.

The fighting was triggered when Hizbollah, the group which is backed by Syria and Iran and is part of Lebanon’s government, seized two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid on northern Israel on July 12.

Israel to pursue offensive

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking in Beirut after talks with the Lebanese government, called for an immediate truce on humanitarian grounds.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his country would pursue its offensive until the two captured soldiers were returned and Lebanese army troops control all of south Lebanon.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Security Council members would start work on a detailed agreement on deploying a multinational security force to south Lebanon.

The United States gave only a guarded welcome to the proposal and Israel said it was premature. “We’re at the stage where we want to be sure that Hizbollah is not deployed at our northern border,” government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

An Israeli source said Israel may step up attacks in coming days, mindful that its chief ally, the United States, might not resist indefinitely international pressure for a ceasefire.

A UN team sent to Lebanon to seek a solution to the fighting said it had made a promising start but that more diplomacy was needed before there could be any optimism.

Free-fire zone

Three Israeli tanks briefly crossed a few hundred metres into Lebanese territory on Monday afternoon, a UN source said, following a similar incursion overnight in which Israel said Hizbollah positions were destroyed.

Israeli Army Radio, quoting a top officer, said the country would enforce a one-kilometre  “free-fire” zone to bar Hizbollah from the border, without keeping troops on the ground.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said that Israel’s offensive has inflicted billions of dollars damage.

“What Israel has been doing is cutting the country to pieces,” he told Reuters in an interview.

The commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, among Hizbollah’s closest allies, said Israel could end the conflict by agreeing to a prisoner swap proposed by the Lebanese group.

Israel radio said Hizbollah tried to fire an Iranian-made missile with a range of 100 km but the rocket malfunctioned. It said the missile was probably the object shown falling from the sky over Beirut by Lebanese television.

Israel is demanding the disarming of Hizbollah in line with UN resolutions — a task beyond the fragile Beirut government.

France, the United States, Britain and a host of other nations scrambled to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon.

Israel’s campaign in Lebanon followed the launch of its offensive in the Gaza Strip on June 28 to try to retrieve another captured soldier and halt Palestinian rocket fire.

Air strikes on Monday flattened the eight-storey Palestinian foreign ministry building in Gaza City and gutted the offices of a Hamas-led force in the northern Gaza Strip.

Israel justified its aerial attack by accusing Foreign Minister Mahmmoud Zahar, a leading member of Hamas, whose armed wing was jointly responsible for the capture of the soldier, of planning “terrorist attacks”.

In the occupied West Bank, Palestinian fighters ambushed a group of Israeli troops, killing one and wounding six others in the city of Nablus, witnesses and military sources said.

Tanks and troops are in the northern town of Beit Hanoun conducting what is their deepest Gaza incursion since withdrawing from the impoverished territory barely 10 months ago, closing the doors on a 38-year occupation.

Yet “Operation Summer Rain” has left at least 87 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead since July 5.

“We will fight the Palestinians without fail until terrorism stops, until Corporal Gilad Shalit is returned safe and sound, and Qassam rocket fire ceases,” Olmert said.

“We will not cease our operations. In both cases, in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip, this is an act of self-defence, because the nation is at a moment of truth,” added the premier, who is facing the biggest test of his leadership.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Israeli attacks on ministries “prove these actions are to paralyse the work of the Palestinian government and to destroy the foundations of the Palestinian political system”.

An F-16 jet dropped a missile on the building, which had already been badly damaged in a raid Thursday, pancaking the five-storey ministry and causing extensive damage to the neighbouring planning and finance ministries.

Three residents of nearby houses were also wounded, medical and security sources said. Israel has already bombed the Gaza offices of Haniyeh and those of his interior minister Siad Siam this month.

Ground troops have also rounded up a third of the Hamas Cabinet in the occupied West Bank, although one of the ministers has since been released.

A 20-year-old resident was killed and a Palestinian fighters left seriously wounded when an Israeli tank opened fire in Beit Hanoun, a medical source said.

A second Palestinian, also a young man, was killed by Israeli fire in another incident in Beit Hanoun, a local medical source said, while a third was critically wounded in cross-fire between Israelis and Palestinian fighters.

Haniyeh likened Israel’s incursion in Beit Hanoun “to what is happening in Beirut, and in all the villages, towns and refugee camps in Lebanon”.

Tanks and bulldozers are parked in the centre of town, with snipers positioned on roofs as the crackle of gunfire rattles across the sky.

Witnesses said infrastructure, orchards, the electricity network, water and sewage systems have been damaged in the incursion.

Aid groups have expressed concern about the difficulties of providing assistance to 1.4 million people living in Gaza following months of financial crisis and the suspension of direct Western aid to the Hamas-led government.

In Brussels, meanwhile, the European Commission said Monday it was providing $25.3 million in food aid for the most vulnerable Palestinians, and separately said it was giving money to buy fuel for power generators at water pumping and treatment plants.

The EU also made available $6.3 million in humanitarian funds “for possible relief action in Lebanon,” said Louis Michel, the EU humanitarian affairs commissioner.

The EU said the food aid would be distributed through the United Nations, and raises the total EU aid available to the Palestinian population so far this year to $417 million, well over the average annual aid from the EU head office of around $317 million it usually gives per year.

“The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories is a matter of great concern,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.

She said the food aid was meant to “meet some of the basic needs of ordinary Palestinians caught up in the current crisis.”

In Amman, King Abdullah discussed the Palestinian and Lebanese situations with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Siniora.

The King briefed the two leaders on his efforts to help end the crisis, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

The King also held similar talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and called for ending Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

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