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Israel Fortifies Along Border

Times Staff Writers

Israel mobilized thousands of additional troops Friday, possibly to intensify its land offensive against Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, while U.S. and other leaders hinted at fresh diplomatic moves but said they did not expect quick progress.

Auguring even wider attacks after 10 days of fierce fighting, the Israeli army called up several thousand reservists, destined primarily for the northern border, as its warplanes again pounded dozens of targets inside Lebanon. More than 350 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon, officials there say.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would travel to the Middle East on Sunday and participate in a Rome gathering of European and Arab foreign ministers later in the week to discuss the crisis. She turned aside the mounting clamor for an immediate cease-fire, saying that would merely offer a “false promise.”

The United States and other countries continued to use helicopters, ships and planes to evacuate their nationals from Lebanon, while Lebanese citizens, especially those from heavily bombarded south Beirut and Tyre, south of the capital, sought refuge as best they could.

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Lebanese officials estimate that more than half a million people have been displaced by the Israeli assault, with a humanitarian crisis growing amid shortages of food and medicine.

In addition to calling up its reserves, the Israeli army moved tanks and troops closer to the border. On Thursday and again Friday, Israeli forces blanketed southern Lebanon with leaflets warning residents to flee.

Army officials declined to specify the number of reservists being called up. Some of them will be sent to the West Bank and Gaza Strip to free active-duty soldiers for deployment to the Lebanese border, and others will head north, military sources said.

Earlier, Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz confirmed that Israeli forces were mounting incursions into Lebanon, and he said 100 Hezbollah fighters had been killed.

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Already, Israeli commandos have been conducting search-and-destroy missions targeting Hezbollah bunkers and reinforced rocket-launching sites.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed Thursday in clashes with Hezbollah guerrillas on Lebanese soil north of the Israeli community of Avivim. Two others died in the same area in a similar firefight earlier in the week.

Nineteen Israeli troops have died during the 10-day-old conflict, including an air force officer killed when two Apache helicopters collided late Thursday near the far-north town of Kiryat Shemona.

Military officials said they would continue what they described as pinpoint operations against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.

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“There will be limited ground operations as needed,” a source said. “It’s not as if we’re going to go in with a thousand tanks. That’s a misimpression.”

“We will fight terror wherever it is because if we do not fight it, it will fight us. If we don’t reach it, it will reach us,” Halutz said at a news conference in Tel Aviv. “We will also conduct limited ground operations as much as needed in order to harm the terror that harms us.”

Fraught With Risk

Although Israel’s military movements signaled preparations for a broader land offensive into southern Lebanon, it had not mounted one by late Friday.

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Such an offensive would represent tacit acknowledgment that air power alone cannot wipe out Hezbollah. Israel believes that the Shiite Muslim militant group has constructed a network of tunnels and buried outposts along the border region in the six years since Israeli forces withdrew from the area.

A decision to invade Lebanon on a larger scale is fraught with risk, especially if the goal is to establish a buffer zone.

Israelis remember the 1982 invasion that began in similar fashion but ended up as an 18-year occupation and a national trauma. The forested, mountainous border terrain is a difficult battlefield for Israeli tanks and heavy armor but provides easy hide-outs for guerrilla fighters.

Ground operations also carry a risk of greater casualties and the political outcry that can produce, as Israel learned before it pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000.

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The decision to launch a full-scale land offensive probably would require further debate and deliberations by Israel’s political leaders.

In Beirut, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud warned that his nation’s army, which has largely stayed out of the conflict, would mobilize to fight an Israeli invasion.

“Of course the army is going to defend its land,” he told CNN.

Although the Lebanese army is no match for Israel along the border, Lahoud said, “inside Lebanon, they know the land and of course they will fight the invading force of Israel if they try to come inside.”

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For now, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz appear to have broad domestic support for their handling of the military campaign in Lebanon and a separate incursion into the Gaza Strip.

In a poll published Friday in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, 78% of respondents said they were satisfied with Olmert’s performance, compared with 43% two weeks ago, before Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Sixty-one percent of respondents said they were satisfied with Peretz’s performance, more than twice the figure of 28% two weeks ago.

Airstrikes Continue

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Israeli fighter jets carried out more than 60 strikes Friday on targets in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border and elsewhere in Lebanon. The military said airstrikes targeted rocket-launching teams and their launch sites; roads leading to the sites; and Hezbollah command posts, bridges and vehicles thought to be carrying Hezbollah fighters.

But Lebanese officials said the Israeli bombs hit three passenger buses near the Syrian border.

The buses burst into flames, but no one was hurt because the buses had just dropped off foreign passengers in Syria, they said.

Israeli warplanes also damaged the longest bridge in Lebanon, along the highway to Damascus, the Syrian capital, and attacked the ancient city of Baalbek, a longtime Hezbollah outpost.

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A United Nations-run observation post near the border was also hit.

Rockets fired by Hezbollah militants again hit the Israeli port city of Haifa and other northern towns Friday. No one was killed in the repeated volleys, but several people were injured.

Israeli officials say 34 people, half of them civilians, have been killed since hostilities erupted July 12.

Hezbollah had fired more than 35 rockets into northern Israel by late afternoon.

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In addition to Haifa, rockets exploded in the northern Galilee region, in communities such as Rosh Pina and Safat, setting off brush fires along a ridge near the border.

In the northern Galilee, towns and highways remained largely deserted.

The scenic plain, edged by forested hills, rang out with blasts from Katyusha rockets and the steady thump of Israeli artillery firing back across the border.

Here in Kiryat Shemona, normally a busy commercial center, few people were out in public.

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A few residents drank beer outside one of the only stores that remained open, while others stocked up on basic food items.

David Shahar, a 49-year-old accountant, said he had grown accustomed to the dueling booms from rockets and artillery. He said he thought it could be some time before the town returned to normal.

“It’s not comfortable. People are not sleeping, not eating. They suppose that sometimes the noise comes from us, sometimes from them,” Shahar said, buying bread, yogurt and a newspaper. “It’s a war, man.”

No ‘Quick Fixes’

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Despite calls from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and various world leaders for an immediate cease-fire, Rice said the U.S. government was not pushing for one.

She said there was a growing “international consensus” on how to deal with the underlying problem, but she was careful not to raise expectations for her upcoming trip to the region.

“I know there are no answers that are easy, nor are there any quick fixes,” Rice told reporters in Washington.

Starting Monday, she will meet with Olmert and his aides in Jerusalem, then Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his team in the Palestinian territories before continuing to Rome, where she will talk with a newly formed “Lebanon core group” that includes European allies, the Russians, a Lebanese government contingent and the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

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U.S. officials and allies have been discussing how to insert an international presence in Lebanon that would suppress Hezbollah, halt arms shipments and try to strengthen the frail government.

But Rice acknowledged that many of the toughest questions, such as the composition of a proposed international security force, were unresolved and needed to be discussed in the days ahead.

She made it clear that the Bush administration does not favor the idea of disarming Hezbollah while allowing it to continue its presence in the Lebanese parliament, where it won several seats in elections. Groups should not be allowed to have “one foot in terror and one foot in politics. It’s not sustainable in the long run,” she said.

Two Democratic U.S. senators, criticizing Rice’s trip to the region as too short, called on President Bush to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East.

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“The United States needs someone of stature, who can speak on your behalf, who can begin to put the pieces of a military settlement together and who can dedicate the time on the ground in the region to achieve results,” Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the party’s senior member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to the president.

The leader of a U.N. team just back from a peace mission to the region called on the Security Council to act swiftly to reduce the devastating toll on civilians and to find a political solution.

Vijay Nambiar said Israel had vowed to continue its attacks until Hezbollah was seriously weakened, and would not negotiate with the militant group via a third party as it previously has.

Another delegate, Terje Roed-Larsen, a veteran of Middle East diplomacy, appeared especially pessimistic. He told reporters that the possibility of a truce was “very dim.”

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“The chances for escalation are now acute,” he said.

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Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington, Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Invasion imminent?

With speculation growing that Israel will launch an all-out attack on Hezbollah, Americans and other foreign nationals continue to flee Lebanon. A United Nations official says the Israeli army is already operating in the western portion of Lebanon’s border region with up to 500 troops and supporting tanks.

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Ground fighting

Israel continues to show signs of planning a ground attack, moving armor and more troops near the border and calling up 3,000 more reservists. Reports say three or four divisions (15,000 to 20,000 troops and 300 to 400 tanks and other armored vehicles) could be in place by Monday. Lebanese south of the Litani River are again warned to leave the Hezbollah-occupied region; thousands do so. Lebanon’s defense minister says the army will fight back if Israel invades.

Lebanon

Israeli airstrikes hit the highway to Syria, damaging a suspension bridge. South Beirut, Baalbek and other Hezbollah strongholds are attacked. Ground troops again cross the border to engage Hezbollah fighters.

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Israel

Haifa is hit by 11 rockets; five people are wounded.

Gaza Strip

Israeli forces leave the Mughazi refugee camp after a two-day battle that killed at least 15.

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Evacuations

Foreigners continue to leave Lebanon. About 4,400 Americans depart Friday. U.S. officials say 8,000 Americans will have left by the weekend. Turkey offers to be a second transit point to ease the burden on Cyprus.

Humanitarian concerns

The first relief supplies reach Tyre: two trucks carrying 24 tons of food, medical supplies and other aid, enough for about 4,000 people.

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Diplomacy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she will leave for the region Sunday in an effort to stop the fighting.

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Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, ESRI, GlobeXplorer (2001), Times reporting

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