Israel staged wide-ranging airstrikes and sent commandos into the Hezbollah heartland Saturday as the U.N. raced to begin enforcing its new cease-fire blueprint and stop combat. Airstrikes killed at least 19 people in Lebanon, including 15 in one village, while Hezbollah rockets wounded at least five people in Israel.
Israel also blasted a highway near Lebanon’s last open border crossing to Syria as it kept up its full-scale campaign against Hezbollah militants. Long columns of Israeli tanks, troops and armored personnel carriers streamed over the border.
The U.N. plan approved Friday night would create a peacekeeping force by combining a beefed-up version of the ineffective U.N. units already in the war zone and 15,000 soldiers from the Lebanese army. The force, which could number around 30,000, would stand between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.
Israel’s Cabinet meets Sunday to approve the U.N. plan. Lebanese officials signaled that their formal backing could come Saturday.
Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said Israel has nearly tripled the number of troops in Lebanon and expects to fight for another week despite the cease-fire deal. He said Israeli forces — apparently about 30,000 soldiers now — would stay in Lebanon until an international force arrives.
Israel has demanded an airtight buffer zone and wonders if U.N. and Lebanese forces are up for the task. A small U.N. military presence — now about 2,000 observers — has been in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon since 1978 and has been overwhelmed by the Islamic militant group’s rising power, aided by Iran and Syria.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice specifically cited Hezbollah’s two sponsors in a statement Friday for all parties to “respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and the will of the international community.”
But the resolution, approved 15-0 in the U.N. Security Council, did nothing to immediately halt the fighting that erupted exactly a month ago and has claimed nearly 900 lives — including at least 761 in Lebanon and 123 Israelis.
Israeli missiles slammed into the southern Lebanon village of Rachaf, about 10 miles from the Israeli border, killing at least 15 civilians, security officials said. Israeli ground forces also fanned out across southern Lebanon hunting for Hezbollah rocket batteries that have fired unending salvos across the border.
Three people also were killed in strikes on Kharayeb, and a Lebanese soldier was killed in an air raid near an army base in the Bekaa Valley, officials said.
In Sidon, a coastal city between Beirut and the Israeli border, Israeli bombs destroyed a power plant. Farther south, another power facility was hit near Tyre, knocking out electricity to the port, police said.
On Lebanon’s northern frontier, Israeli airstrikes hit the highway leading to the Arida border crossing about a mile from the Mediterranean coast. It’s the last official border post open for humanitarian convoys and civilians fleeing the country. The highway was impassable, but drivers tried to maneuver through ruts and ditches.
The only other exits from Lebanon are rugged pathways and back roads through deserts or mountains.
Israel seeks to block supply routes for Hezbollah and disrupt their mobility and has warned it would target any vehicles on the roads in southern Lebanon and along other main highways.
Any movement — even under the umbrella of U.N. forces — can prove deadly.
On Friday, an Israeli aircraft fired on a convoy of more than 600 civilian vehicles and others carrying 350 Lebanese police and soldiers who left the Israeli-occupied town on Marjayoun in southeast Lebanon. Police said three civilians and an army recruit were killed and 28 people were injured. The mayor of Marjayoun, Fuad Hamra, placed the death toll at six.
Israel said the U.N. troops asked permission to lead the convoy, but it was denied. Previous groups were given permission and traveled unharmed, the Israeli military said.
Fighting continued in Hezbollah-held areas around Marjayoun, a strategic hub overlooking valleys used as Hezbollah rocket bases.
Israeli commando units and guerrillas engaged in close combat in a valley near El-Ghandourieh, about 10 miles southwest of Marjayoun, according to Lebanese security officials.
Other Israeli ground forces, backed by aircraft and drones, met stiff resistance as they tried to reach the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border.
Israel said its troops destroyed several rocket batteries and killed more than 40 Hezbollah fighters in the last 24 hours. The guerrilla group announced four deaths Friday and none Saturday.
After a morning free of Hezbollah rocket strikes in northern Israel, a barrage of 20 missiles at midafternoon injured two people in Amirim and three in Kiryat Shemona. Hezbollah had been averaging nearly 200 hits each day in the monthlong conflict.
The Litani is seen by Israel as a crucial boundary in its attempt to push back Hezbollah. Israel repeatedly has insisted that the proposed peacekeeping force cannot allow Hezbollah weapons south of the river.
But it will be nearly impossible to rid south Lebanon of the Islamic guerrillas, who are now in the Lebanese Cabinet and run clinics and other charities that are considered essential in rebuilding the region. Their ability to withstand the Israeli military assault has also made Hezbollah heroes across the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press