Israel launched a heavy air and artillery bombardment of south Lebanon on Thursday after nine Israeli soldiers were killed in the Jewish state’s worst 24 hours for casualties in a 16-day-old conflict against Hizbollah.
Senior international diplomats failed at a Rome conference on Wednesday to agree on calling for an immediate ceasefire, and a top Israeli officer, Major-General Udi Adam, told reporters: “I reckon (the offensive) will continue for several more weeks.”
But although Washington prevented a call for an immediate truce in the conflict, in which 433 Lebanese and 51 Israelis have died, diplomats said groundwork was laid for a possible way forward. World concern has mounted over civilian casualties.
Israeli warplanes destroyed communication masts north of Beirut on Thursday and attacked three trucks carrying medical and food supplies to the east, security sources said. They said two truck drivers were killed. Israel accuses Lebanon’s eastern neighbor Syria of supplying Hizbollah guerrillas with weapons.
Other Israeli aircraft blasted targets in and around several villages and towns in the mainly Shi’ite Muslim south, and artillery batteries opened up from Israel’s side of the border.
Hizbollah guerrillas, who have kept up rocket attacks on northern Israel, killed nine Israeli soldiers in house-to-house fighting in a border town and a nearby village on Wednesday.
The conflict, triggered on July 12 when Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid, has largely overshadowed separate fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli forces killed 24 Palestinians, including at least 12 militants. in the coastal territory on Wednesday. Israel has killed 141 Palestinians in a month-long campaign to recover a soldier captured by militants and stop rocket fire from Gaza.
Foreign ministers at the Rome conference pledged to work urgently for a “lasting, permanent and sustainable” ceasefire but did not call for an immediate truce, as Lebanon and its Arab allies had demanded. Washington stuck to its stance that the root causes of the conflict must be tackled first.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned Syria and Iran, Hizbollah’s main allies, that they faced further isolation if they tried to scupper U.S.-led attempts to get a ceasefire. She blames Tehran and Damascus for stoking the conflict.
“This needs to be between Lebanon and Israel,” Rice told reporters en route from Rome to Malaysia to meet Asian ministers. The United States has backed Israeli demands for Hizbollah to pull back from the border and ultimately disarm.
Diplomats said key elements of a political solution were identified at a private meeting between Rice, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
These included a U.N. ceasefire resolution, a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbollah, an end to a territorial dispute over a border area known as the Shebaa Farms occupied by Israel, moves to disarm Hizbollah and the deployment of an EU-led international peace force in southern Lebanon.
The Syrian ambassador to Britain, Sami Khiyami, said Rice should visit Damascus for talks. “If the United States does not change its policy in the Middle East, the whole Middle East will be on fire,” he told the BBC in an interview.
Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, flew to Damascus on Wednesday for talks with Syrian officials, diplomats said.
In contrast to Rice, Annan said Iran and Syria should be included in efforts to halt the war.
Israel, Iran and Syria were not invited to the Rome talks.
In the fighting in Lebanon, Hizbollah guerrillas ambushed an Israeli force advancing on the town of Bint Jbeil, four km (2.5 miles) from the border, Lebanese security forces said.
The Israeli army said eight of its soldiers were killed at Bint Jbeil and 22 were wounded. An Israeli officer was killed and three soldiers were wounded in a Hizbollah attack on the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert strove to limit diplomatic damage from the killing of four U.N. observers in an air strike on their post in south Lebanon on Tuesday.
He told Annan he was sorry about the deaths but expressed shock at the U.N. leader’s suggestion the attack was deliberate.
An Irish army officer in south Lebanon warned Israel six times that air strikes threatened the lives of U.N. observers before Tuesday’s deaths, Ireland’s Foreign Ministry said.
Israeli bombing has forced an estimated 750,000 people in Lebanon to flee their homes. Many are trapped in areas where fighting is raging.
A large U.N. aid convoy reached the southern city of Tyre to help provide deliveries to an area devastated by the bombing.
© Reuters 2006