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Security Council Approves Israel-Hezbollah Measure

Times Staff Writers

The Security Council on Friday unanimously called for an “immediate cessation to hostilities” between Israel and Hezbollah, paving the way for a cease-fire and the deployment of 15,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops in Lebanon.

But before the vote, columns of Israeli tanks and troops rumbled across the border into Lebanon, Israeli airstrikes killed at least 23 people and Hezbollah rockets rained onto northern Israel.

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials signaled that they were satisfied with the U.N. resolution but would continue an expanded ground offensive until the Cabinet’s expected approval of the measure Sunday. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the expansion just hours before the U.N. convened.

Lebanon’s government will accept the resolution at a meeting today, a Lebanese diplomat said. But the ambiguous terms of the measure that allowed all parties to sign onto it after 11 days of intense negotiations led critics to warn that the truce could easily fall apart.

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Hezbollah’s response to the resolution also could be a problem. Because Israel would be allowed to remain in Hezbollah-controlled territory in southern Lebanon until U.N. and other forces arrived, some analysts predicted small skirmishes despite the truce.

The resolution also calls for the “unconditional release” of the two Israeli soldiers whose seizure July 12 by Hezbollah sparked the fighting. It encourages the return of Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel, but is careful not to link or equate them to the two Israelis.

The resolution further calls for the disarming of all remaining militias in Lebanon, meaning Hezbollah, and sets up a hostility-free zone between the Israeli-Lebanese border and Lebanon’s Litani River.

It calls for “the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations.” Though Israel would be allowed to defend its position until as many as 15,000 U.N. and 15,000 Lebanese troops arrived, it would be required to freeze its incursion. Israel would pull out simultaneously with their arrival.

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The U.N. today will hold a preliminary meeting of nations that might provide troops to augment the U.N. peacekeeping force of 2,000 already in southern Lebanon. France is expected to lead the force and no U.S. contingent is planned.

The resolution would allow the bolstered U.N. troops to use force to defend themselves and guarantee the area is not a base for “hostile activities of any kind.” That measure reflects a key compromise addressing Israel’s demands for a force strong enough to contain Hezbollah, and Lebanon’s desire to not have an aggressive foreign force on its soil.

It mandates an arms embargo that the expanded U.N. force would help enforce.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is asked to develop proposals to solve the Shebaa Farms issue within 30 days. The area is occupied by Israel and claimed by Lebanon, but the U.N. considers it part of Syria.

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Annan welcomed the truce, but said he was “profoundly disappointed” that the council did not act earlier.

He noted that “more children than fighters have been killed in this conflict.”

Olmert’s expansion of the ground operation in southern Lebanon came in response to an earlier draft of the resolution that called for a 10-day gap between an Israeli withdrawal and the deployment of the Lebanese and U.N. forces.

The military operation added urgency to the negotiations and gave Israel more ground to hold until the withdrawal begins. It also was meant to send Syria and Iran, key sponsors of Hezbollah, a message that the militant group’s adventurism would carry a heavy price, an Israeli diplomat said.

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Witnesses reported that an Israeli drone fired on a convoy of vehicles carrying thousands of civilians and soldiers from the Israeli-captured town of Marjayoun. Wire services reported that seven people were killed.

Wire reports said that Israeli warplanes struck electricity transformers in coastal Tyre, plunging the city into darkness.

In all, 23 people were reported killed Friday in Lebanon, 11 of them in an early-morning air raid on a key bridge linking Lebanon and Syria. The strike squeezed access to one remaining road connecting the two countries, making delivery of humanitarian aid more difficult. Israel says Hezbollah uses the roads to transport weapons.

“This was an attempt to close the only route open all the way to the northern border,” said Lebanese Transportation Minister Mohammed Safadi.

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The road was still passable, winding past shuttered gas stations and empty resorts, with detours necessary around three destroyed bridges. But with every truck a potential target for Israeli planes hunting weapons shipments, traffic was light.

In the southern part of the capital, a Hezbollah stronghold, Israeli warplanes struck 11 high-rises Friday morning.

In southern Lebanon, Israel continued in fits and starts its offensive to secure strategic towns and villages as a platform for the broadened incursion. Three crippled Israeli tanks could be seen in a valley between the Israeli town of Metulla and the southern hills of Lebanon.

In the village of Khiam, about 300 Israeli infantrymen backed by 20 tanks battled Hezbollah fighters. The Israelis lost six of the tanks, a military source said.

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One Israeli soldier was killed Friday and more than a dozen wounded, a military spokeswoman said.

This morning, hundreds of Israeli infantry troops were streaming into Lebanon from Misgav Am and were engaged in intense fighting seven miles north of the border. Heavy artillery was used before the march.

Swarms of Katyusha rockets slammed into northern Israel, sending residents scurrying for shelter. The coastal city of Haifa, which Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned would come under increased fire, was hit several times, causing some injuries but no deaths.

Thousands of rockets have hit Israel in more than four weeks of fighting, the heaviest bombardment the Jewish state has suffered since its founding 58 years ago.

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The failure to stem those attacks, the rising number of military casualties and the struggle to retain control of towns and villages captured from surprisingly well-armed and organized fighters have sparked growing public criticism in Israel.

A poll published Friday showed declining approval for the way Olmert and his “security Cabinet” have handled the war and a growing belief that Israel is not winning.

The mounting criticism helped precipitate the security Cabinet’s decision Wednesday to authorize the deeper thrust into Lebanese territory that Olmert ordered Friday.

But the chances of purging Hezbollah fighters from a wide swath of southern Lebanon are slim if, as expected, the government approves the truce and halts the broadened offensive after just two days.

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Military analysts say that sweeping north to the Litani River could take just a few days, but clearing the region of Hezbollah guerrillas could take four weeks or more.

“I have the feeling ... that the resistance will be weaker [as troops advance north] because the best troops of Hezbollah, which is not a large organization, are now in south Lebanon,” said Shlomo Brom, formerly head of strategic planning for the Israeli military and now an analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

But even reaching the Litani would not eliminate the threat of continued rocket attacks, he said.

At the U.N., Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cast the vote for the United States, which was the lead sponsor of the resolution along with France.

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She said the U.S. would give $50 million to help Lebanon rebuild and urged Hezbollah’s backers to leave the fledgling democracy alone.

“Today we call upon every state, especially Iran and Syria, to respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and the will of the international community,” Rice told the council.

Lebanon’s acting foreign minister, Tarek Mitri, criticized the agreement but said Lebanon would implement its part in good faith.

“A cease-fire that retains for one side the right not to cease fire is not a cease-fire” he said.

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Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, said he hoped that the measure would open a new chapter of peace but told the Security Council that the resolution alone “will do nothing.”

“Unless the tools set out in this resolution are used, with resolve and decisiveness, we will be back at this table -- if not in a week, then in a month or a year, facing an even greater tragedy.”

*

Times staff writers Farley reported from the United Nations and Chu from Jerusalem. Staff writers Bruce Wallace in Beirut, Tracy Wilkinson in Kiryat Shemona, Israel, Damon Winter in Misgav Am, Israel, and special correspondent Maha al-Azar in Beirut contributed to this report.

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