BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Hezbollah inflicted heavy casualties on Israeli troops as they battled for a key hilltop town in southern Lebanon for a fourth day Wednesday, with as many as 14 soldiers reported killed. Lebanese officials, meanwhile, confirmed that four U.N. observers were killed by an Israeli airstrike on their post Tuesday night.
U.S., European and Arab officials holding crisis talks in Rome on Lebanon failed to agree on details for a cease-fire to end the fighting.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israeli lawmakers that he wants to establish a strip of a little more than a mile wide in south Lebanon that will be free of Hezbollah guerrillas, giving the dimensions of a new “security zone” for the first time.
“We want a two-kilometer (1.2-mile) space from the border in which it will not be possible to fire rockets toward soldiers and civilians’ houses and in which there will not be contact with military border patrols,” Olmert told parliament’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, according to participants at the closed meeting.
Israeli soldiers patrolled a “security zone” during Israel’s 18-year occupation of south Lebanon, but Olmert indicated the new buffer zone would be different. “We do not have any intention of returning to the security zone but want to create an area where there will be no Hezbollah,” he was quoted as saying.
The Israeli public currently overwhelmingly supports the army’s broad offensive in Lebanon, but is not likely to support any reoccupation.
Israel has faced fiercer resistance than expected as it advances across the border in its two-week campaign against the Islamic militant group.
Wednesday’s fighting broke out when Israeli forces tried to advance inside Bint Jbail, a town that has symbolic importance to Hezbollah as one of the centers of resistance to the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation.
There were conflicting reports about the casualty toll in the fourth day of fighting for Bint Jbail, which holds the largest Shiite Muslim community in the border area.
Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite TV channel, said 14 Israeli soldiers had been killed. Hezbollah’s chief spokesman Hussein Rahhal said of the battle: “What I can tell you is that 13 Israelis have been burned alive in their tanks on our land.”
If confirmed, it would be the largest death toll suffered by the Israeli military in a single attack since the offensive began two weeks ago.
The Israeli military said there were 20 Israeli casualties, but it would not say if any soldiers had been killed.
Israeli TV reported 13 casualties, but was not more specific. Israel Radio said “at least 10 Israeli soldiers had been hit” in heavy fighting against 200 Hezbollah guerrillas in the town. The radio did not specify if any Israelis were killed.
The Israeli army said several Hezbollah fighters had taken cover in a local mosque.
A senior Hezbollah official, Mahmoud Komati, told The Associated Press that Israeli forces had managed to seize a few points inside Bint Jbail, but had not yet taken the town center.
Hezbollah said “violent confrontations” were taking place between its fighters and Israeli forces attempting to advance toward a hospital in Bint Jbail.
Fighting also has been heavy for days around the border towns of Aitaroun and Maroun al-Ras, where Israeli forces are trying to eliminate the guerrillas who have been firing rockets into Israel. The area controls the high ground in the central sector of the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Israeli army commanders also have presented a more limited agenda, saying Israeli ground troops would not push deep into Lebanon and the objective is to kill as many Hezbollah fighters as possible and push others away from the border.
After the Rome meeting heard a dramatic appeal from Lebanon’s prime minister to “stop the killing,” it failed to agree on a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
“Participants expressed their determination to work immediately to reach, with utmost urgency, a cease-fire that puts an end to the current violence and hostilities. The cease-fire must be lasting, permanent and sustainable,” said Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema at the close of the meeting.
It did, however, agree on the need to deploy an international force under the United Nations to southern Lebanon.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the solution to the crisis should involve Iran and Syria.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Washington favors urgently ending the fighting but that there cannot be a return to a status quo of political uncertainty and instability in Lebanon.
The Israeli bombardment of a U.N. observation post in the southern town of Khiam provoked a sharp exchange between the world body and Israel. Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said rescue workers were trying to extricate the fourth body from the wrecked building.
Annan said he was shocked by the “apparently deliberate targeting by Israeli Defense Forces of a U.N. observer post in southern Lebanon.”
Olmert called Annan to express his “deep regret” and say the U.N. post was hit inadvertently. He pledged to carry out a “thorough investigation” and would share the results with Annan, according to a statement from his office.
He expressed dismay over Annan’s initial comments that the airstrike was “apparently deliberate.”
“It’s inconceivable for the U.N. to define an error as an apparently deliberate action,” Olmert’s statement said.
One of the dead was identified as Chinese U.N. observer Du Zhaoyu, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Israel’s ambassador to Beijing was summoned and asked to convey China’s request that Israel fully investigate the incident and issue an apology to the victim’s relatives.
“We are deeply shocked by this incident and strongly condemn it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in the statement.
The other three U.N. observers were from Austria, Canada and Finland.
A new volley of Hezbollah rockets hit northern Israel on Tuesday, killing a teenage girl. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, issued a taped television message saying guerrillas would start firing rockets deeper into Israel.
As the Israeli incursion continued, the senior Hezbollah leader said the guerrillas had not expected such an onslaught when they killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others during a cross-border raid on July 12.
“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,” Komati told the AP.
The international community also stepped up efforts to get aid to those stranded in the troubled south. A U.N. convoy of 10 trucks carrying food, medicine, sanitation and hygiene supplies left Beirut for the port city of Tyre. The United Nations said it was the first such effort to distribute aid to the south via “safe humanitarian corridors.”
A Jordanian military plane landed at Beirut airport Wednesday to evacuate wounded Lebanese, airport officials said. The aircraft, which was the first to land since the airport was closed July 13 after Israeli airstrikes on its runways, also brought a field hospital. Two more planes were bringing medical equipment and military engineers to help repair the airport.
The European Commission also said it was sending an additional $12.6 million in humanitarian aid to Lebanon and $13.9 million to help cover the costs of travel home for foreigners from poor countries fleeing the fighting.