UN appeals for truce |
Rice heads back to ME as Israel rejects call, 12 civilians killed in air raids
Afp, Reuters, Beirut/ Tyre
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed back to the Middle East yesterday to find a way to end the bloody conflict in Lebanon as the United Nations appealed for a three-day truce to allow in desperately needed humanitarian aid.
The United States however continues to rule out an immediate ceasefire to end Israel's 18-day-old war on Hezbollah that has left hundreds of people dead, mostly civilians, in Lebanon alone, and made hundreds of thousands homeless.
Israel yesterday rejected UN calls for a 72-hour pause in fighting to enable relief workers to evacuate elderly, young and wounded people from south Lebanon and to bring in emergency aid.
"There is no need for a 72-hour temporary cease-fire because Israel has opened a humanitarian corridor to-and-from Lebanon," said Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner.
Rather Israel kept up a wave of air strikes, pounding Hezbollah targets including a missile launch pad it suspected was used to fire a new type of missile that landed in Afula, 50km south of the border, the deepest strike into Israel since the conflict began.
Israeli forces have pulled back from positions on the outskirts of a Hezbollah stronghold town in south Lebanon that has been the scene of deadly battles, Lebanese police said Saturday.
Tanks and armoured vehicles left the hills overlooking the main border town of Bint Jbeil late Friday and returned to Marun Al-Ras, which was captured by Israeli forces on July 23, they said.
But Israeli troops in Marun Al-Ras continued to bombard Bint Jbeil and nearby Aitarun, they said.
Advancing Israeli forces have encountered fierce resistance from Lebanese Shia militant Hezbollah guerrillas since they moved across the border, stepping up their massive air and ground offensive in Lebanon.
The army said six soldiers were wounded in the battle for the key Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold that has been the scene of the deadliest combat between Israeli troops and Shia Muslim guerrillas.
Twelve civilians, including a mother and her five children, were killed on Saturday in a new wave of Israeli air raids on Lebanon, police said.
The six members of the al-Kharakeh family were crushed to death under the rubble of their two-storey house, which was destroyed in the Israeli raid close to the town of Nabatiyeh in central Lebanon.
The father, Adnan al-Kharakeh, an official with the Lebanese civil defence, was not killed in the raid. It was not clear if he had escaped or was not at home at the time of the strike.
Six civilians were also killed in an Israeli air raid on four houses in the border village of Ain Arab in southeast Lebanon, police said. UN peacekeepers were heading to the village which has been cut off from the rest of the country by Israeli bombardment of the main road.
Israel, which last week lost nine soldiers in fighting around Bint Jbeil and a neighbouring village in its biggest single-day death toll of the conflict, said Friday it had killed 26 Hezbollah fighters.
The bodies of eight civilians, including a couple and their three children in a car hit by a missile, were found on the roads of southern Lebanon following Israeli bombardments on the region, officials said Saturday.
"We retrieved from a destroyed car the bodies of a man, his wife and their three children who were killed three days ago on the Maarub-Dardghia road, near the southern port city of Tyre," the civil defence chief in southern Lebanon, Salam Daher, told AFP.
The bodies of three other civilians killed by shrapnel, some partly decomposed, were found on roads near Tyre, he said.
US President George W. Bush said Rice will arrive in the region Saturday "to work with Israel and Lebanon to come up with an acceptable UN Security Council resolution that we can table next week."
Bush and his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, held talks in Washington on a three-step plan to end the crisis, isolate Hezbollah and its backers Iran and Syria, and set the stage for a long-term solution for the Middle East.
Blair said world powers would meet at UN headquarters in New York Monday to discuss the possible deployment of a multinational stabilisation force in Lebanon.
But they again refused to call for an immediate ceasefire to stop Israel's offensive, saying a more comprehensive solution was necessary.
"This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East. Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for a broader change in the region," said Bush.
The two leaders also warned Israel's archfoes Syria and Iran that they must become "proper and responsible members of the international community" or face "the risk of increasing confrontation."
Facing a potential humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, UN humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland called for a 72-hour truce to allow casualties to be evacuated and food and medicine to be sent into the war zone.
He cited Lebanese health ministry figures saying that more than 600 people had been killed in Lebanon since Israel launched its offensive against Hezbollah targets on July 12 in response to the capture of two soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid. An AFP count has put the death toll in Lebanon at more than 430, the vast majority of them civilians.
Israel has ordered the mobilisation of thousands of army reservists to bolster its assault and stepped up its air war aimed at stopping rocket fire and freeing the captured soldiers.
But on Saturday, Hezbollah militants gave a new display of their firepower, launching a new heavy-warhead missile across the border.
Israeli police said an unknown missile capable of carrying 100 kilos (220 pounds) of explosives was among five that landed in the town of Afula, causing no casualties.
Hezbollah said it fired for the first time a salvo of what it called Khaibar I missiles.
The strike came after Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed that his guerrillas would fire rockets at Israel beyond the northern port city of Haifa, after so far using only shorter-range Katyusha rockets against Israel.
And the Israeli military said it would deploy Patriot anti-missile batteries near Tel Aviv -- Israel's largest city -- if Hezbollah used long-range missiles.
Meanwhile a senior EU delegation in Beirut threw its support behind Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's plan to resolve the conflict, which calls for an exchange of prisoners, and a pacification of their common border.
With 800,000 people displaced by the fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) criticised what it called the "unacceptable" humanitarian situation in Lebanon.
"Much more has to be done by Israeli forces... to protect and spare civilians in the conduct of military operations," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC's director of operations, at the same time criticising Hezbollah's firing of rockets at civilian areas.
He also said the ICRC had not received any positive response from Hezbollah in response to its request to visit the two abducted Israeli soldiers.
International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) said Israel's promised humanitarian aid corridors in south Lebanon were an illusion.
"In effect there is no real humanitarian access in the south, the international community is deluding itself with talk of humanitarian corridors," its operations chief Christopher Stokes told reporters in Beirut.
Despite Asian and European Union calls for a halt to fighting, Bush again warned against what he called "fake peace".
Setting a different pace, French President Jacques Chirac said Friday he wanted a UN resolution calling for an immediate truce adopted "as quickly as possible".
Bush's position reinforced the stance adopted -- despite Arab protests -- at an international conference in Rome Wednesday.
Israel seized on that refusal to call for a quick truce as a green light to press on with its offensive.
But that claim was dismissed Friday as "outrageous" by Washington, in its strongest open criticism of Israel yet during the conflict.
Israeli attacks on south Lebanon Friday killed 10 more civilians, including a Jordanian, while fierce clashes flared between Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants around the flashpoint town of Bint Jbeil.
Army chief Dan Halutz on Thursday claimed that "enormous" damage had been inflicted on Hezbollah with hundreds of its fighters hit.
A total of 51 Israelis have died in cross-border fighting, most of them soldiers. The government has ordered the mobilisation of three divisions of reservists -- as many as 30,000 more troops, although it said it has decided to limit its ground offensives.
In the Gaza Strip, where Israel is engaged in another assault to retrieve a third captured serviceman, two people were killed on Friday, bringing the death toll from the month-old offensive to at least 145 Palestinians and one Israeli.
The army said two Israeli children were lightly wounded on Friday when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed on the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon.