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Lebanese assail cease-fire plan as attacks take at least 35 lives
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday absorbed the heaviest blow of its nearly monthlong war with Hezbollah, with 12 reservists killed in a rocket strike at a military staging area and at least three people killed and dozens hurt by a volley that exploded in Haifa.
Amid the growing bloodshed, Israel signaled determination to seize the battlefield advantage while U.N. action is pending on a cease-fire plan crafted by the U.S. and France. Lebanon railed against the proposal.
Israeli warplanes struck across Lebanon, killing at least 20 people and injuring dozens. Hezbollah guerrillas fired more than 160 rockets into northern Israel and fought Israeli troops in close-quarters combat in villages close to the frontier.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned Sunday that the U.N. resolution may not curtail the fighting immediately.
"I would hope that you would see very early on an end to large-scale violence ... the firing of rockets that needs to stop for the next phase," Rice said. But she added, "we can't rule out that there could be skirmishes for some time to come."
Rice said she hoped for a vote on the resolution today or Tuesday.
Lebanese officials railed against the draft, saying that unless it is overhauled, it will do nothing to quell the warfare. They complained that the language left the door open for Israel to keep up the crippling attacks and appealed for the international community to order Israel to remove its ground troops from southern Lebanon.
"It is against Lebanese interests and against peace," Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Shiite Amal party, said of the document. "This draft proposal will keep the doors open for war."
Berri said the plan was unacceptable because it would leave Israeli troops in Lebanon and does not deal with Beirut's key demands: a release of prisoners held by Israel and moves to resolve a dispute over the Chebaa Farms border area.
The Lebanese government on Sunday asked the U.N. to revise the draft, demanding that Israel pull its forces out immediately with the end of hostilities.
And Foreign Minister Walid Moallem of Syria, one of Hezbollah's main patrons, said on a visit to Beirut that the plan was "a recipe for the continuation of the war."
Israel maintained official silence on the proposal, which calls for an immediate end to hostilities and seeks to lay groundwork for a second resolution that would establish an international force to support the Lebanese army in the border zone. However, senior officials indicated that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert considered the terms generally favorable.
Israel vows to continue
In the meantime, Israel vowed to press ahead with its offensive, meant to purge Hezbollah from a 4-mile-deep strip of southern Lebanon.
Although the Israeli public still broadly supports the government's war aims, Sunday's rocket deaths staggered the country, not only because they represented the highest single-day toll since the start of the conflict, but because the circumstances were particularly painful.
The 12 Israeli soldiers were killed as they congregated at the entrance to Kfar Giladi, a border communal farm being used as a makeshift base by the military. The simultaneous deaths of so many reservists, citizen-soldiers who left jobs and families to rush to the war front, is an enormous blow to national morale, worsened by the fact that the deaths might have been prevented if the soldiers had taken cover when warning sirens sounded.
Haifa, where three people were killed, suffered a greater one-time loss of life July 16, when eight railway workers were killed in a rocket strike. But Israelis shuddered Sunday at televised scenes of chaos and panic in a vibrant city that is considered one of the country's jewels.
Sirens wailed, smoke billowed over the skyline and rescue workers scrambled to clear rubble to check for survivors.
Haifa has long been a city where Jews and Arabs live side by side, and all three of the dead were members of Israel's Arab minority. The dead included an elderly man and woman who were having coffee in the garden outside a building that took a direct hit. Arriving at the scene, the man's daughter wailed in Arabic: "Is father dead?"
While previous strikes on Haifa had been isolated, this one involved a concerted volley that hit one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, raising the specter of more rockets hitting densely populated areas in the city of nearly 300,000.
"This attack in Haifa is precisely what Israel is trying to prevent. This is vivid proof of the necessity of Israel's [military] operation," said David Baker, an official in the prime minister's office. "We will not allow Hezbollah to terrorize our cities."
Resolution "a first step"
The day's events stoked fears of a surge in casualties while the Security Council prepares to vote on the proposed resolution as each side seeks to inflict heavy blows on the other and gain a potential edge in negotiations to come.
Nearly 600 Lebanese and 93 Israelis have died since the conflict erupted July 12 with a cross-border raid by Hezbollah in which two Israeli soldiers were captured.
In Lebanon, Israeli airstrikes ranged from Beirut's southern suburbs to the country's southern fringe. Three Chinese peacekeepers were wounded when the U.N. post they were manning was struck by a Hezbollah rocket, the U.N. peacekeeping forces announced.
The skyline above southern Beirut was a haze of acrid smoke late in the afternoon as nearly two dozen airstrikes and volleys from warships positioned offshore hit the neighborhoods of Bir al-Abed, Mesharafiya and Dahieh, setting at least 14 buildings ablaze.
Roads in and around Lebanon's southern port city of Tyre were nearly empty, and people who tried to navigate the streets risked their lives.
A man driving south toward Tyre, his van stuffed with bread, was killed on a stretch of road through banana groves.
Another strike on a Lebanese army position south of Tyre killed one soldier, wounded another and left six men missing. And on a main road in Tyre, a man selling tiny cups of coffee to passers-by on a main street was killed.
Israel has seized a number of Hezbollah prisoners in the course of the fighting, and on Sunday, the military announced that one guerrilla it is holding was involved in the raid that resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers.
The proposed Security Council resolution called for the immediate and unconditional release of the two Israeli soldiers, language that pleased Israeli officials.
Rice, who traveled to President Bush's Texas ranch on Sunday to brief him, said no one should expect the proposed resolution to offer a quick fix.
"We are urging all states in the Security Council to back this resolution as a first step," Rice said. "We heard very favorable remarks about it" on Saturday, she said, and added that she would go to New York to further diplomatic talks if necessary.
Arab League foreign ministers were to meet in Beirut today for a hastily convened session. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, speaking in Cairo, said the gathering "is a clear message to the world to show the Arab solidarity with the Lebanese people and in support of their demands."
Los Angeles Times reporters Nicole Gaouette, Kim Murphy, Carolyn Cole and Vita Bekker contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company