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Israel Open to NATO Troops Along Border

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Times Staff Writers

With deadly force, Israeli warplanes hit fleeing Lebanese civilians Sunday and Hezbollah militants lobbed rockets at townspeople across northern Israel, even as diplomatic efforts began to gain traction.

Israel for the first time signaled willingness to accept an international military force to quell the violence that has entered its second week, although there was no immediate consensus on its composition.

In a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before she departed for the region Sunday, Saudi Arabia pushed the Bush administration for an immediate cease-fire, a step President Bush and Rice have so far rejected.

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Stunned at the destruction wrought in Beirut, the United Nations’ top humanitarian official condemned the Israeli raids and pleaded for safe passage of emergency supplies for more than 700,000 Lebanese displaced by 12 days of sustained Israeli bombardment aimed at destroying Hezbollah positions.

Despite steady airstrikes, which on Sunday pounded the southern suburbs of Beirut, the port of Sidon and areas around the southern town of Tyre, Israel has not managed to silence Hezbollah rocket fire. Two people were killed Sunday in the Israeli city of Haifa and a dozen injured around northern Israel in repeated Hezbollah barrages.

In Lebanon, the civilian toll continued to mount. Caught in Israeli strikes on Sunday were a minibus and a convoy of cars attempting to flee villages around Tyre following Israeli warnings to evacuate. Three passengers in the minibus were killed and 13 wounded, reporters at the scene said. A fourth motorist also died, and a Lebanese news photographer was reported killed when an Israeli missile hit near the taxi in which she was traveling.

At least three other people were killed, including two boys, in bombing raids on the border towns of Manara, Meiss el Jabal and Blida, all near Tyre, a town 10 miles north of the Israeli frontier that Israeli army commanders believe Hezbollah uses to fire the rockets that reach Haifa.

Israel also attacked the port of Sidon early Sunday, destroying a religious complex linked to Hezbollah and wounding four people, reports from the zone said.

Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s top official for humanitarian relief, said civilians in Lebanon and Israel were “paying a disproportionate price,” but said the punishment inflicted on the Lebanese was especially harsh.

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Egeland decried what he said “seems to be an excessive use of force” in southern Beirut and warned that civilian casualties would mount horrifically at the current pace of violence.

A senior Israeli official said the government regretted the “tragic” loss of life in Lebanon and said the military was instructed to avoid civilian casualties but that Hezbollah often fights from inside population centers.

“In modern warfare, unfortunately, you’re seeing here a state, a modern, liberalized, democratic state, confronting a terrorist organization which operates from within civilian communities and doesn’t have any rules to abide by,” Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said in a CNN interview. He added that “people are sleeping with the missile launchers, and the missiles themselves in the living room.”

On the Israeli-Lebanese border, meanwhile, where Israeli tanks and troops were massed to back up land incursions, Israeli artillery pummeled the hilltop Lebanese village of Maroun el Ras. Military commanders said on Saturday they had overpowered the village, but the artillery fire suggested continued resistance.

Maroun el Ras is the bridgehead for control of a six-mile-wide strip that Israeli forces want to rid of Hezbollah fighters. Army field officers say Maroun el Ras, with its buried bunkers and reinforced tunnels, has been used regularly by Hezbollah to launch Katyusha rockets into Israel.

Israeli officials described the offensive as a series of “pinpoint” operations conducted by relatively small numbers of troops, and said the units had achieved some success in destroying Hezbollah weaponry and killing fighters.

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Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, who heads the army’s northern command, said cross-border raids also targeted at least two other positions along the border that were used by Hezbollah fighters as outposts or weapons caches.

Adam told reporters Sunday that the offensive could last for weeks, and would include ground incursions deeper inside Lebanon, if necessary.

“This should end in victory. And to me, victory is that Hezbollah is not only no longer on the contact line but also [does] not remain an organization with rocket, missile or other capabilities,” Adam said. “This is the required achievement and this will be victory.”

By Sunday evening, Hezbollah had launched about 90 more rockets at a number of towns in northern Israel. The hills above the Israeli border town of Kiryat Shemona were ablaze, as rockets ignited the dry, scraggly brush and spread smoke over an already largely deserted community. Also hit were Safat, Rosh Pina and Acre, in addition to the two deadly strikes at Haifa.

One of the victims in Haifa was struck and killed by shrapnel as he was driving a car on a main road. The second died after a rocket struck the factory where he was working, Israeli police said.

Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, has suffered the greatest number of fatalities in more than 2,200 rocket attacks across a broad band of northern Israel. On July 16, eight railway workers were killed when a rocket hit a rail depot.

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“The war is not over,” Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav told the city’s residents in a somber broadcast message. “Stay in shelters and protected areas.”

Philippe Douste-Blazy, France’s foreign minister, in Israel for diplomatic talks, was visiting Haifa when air-raid warning sirens went off. His convoy pulled off the road, and the delegation sought refuge in a residential building, where Douste-Blazy took cover in a stairwell.

In addition to the French, Foreign Ministry officials from Britain and Germany met Sunday with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem on the eve of the expected arrival of Rice. After initially rebuffing the idea, Israel on Sunday said it would consider deployment of an international stabilization force on the border.

“Israel’s goal is to see the Lebanese army deployed along the border with Israel, but we understand that we are talking about a weak army,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s office quoted him as telling the visiting German foreign minister. “In the interim, Israel will have to accept a multinational force.”

Peretz said Israel would prefer that NATO troops be involved, and also said such a force should have the job of stemming weapons-smuggling from Syria.

Later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reported to have made a similar offer, as long as the multinational force had combat experience and real authority.

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Bush administration officials said Sunday that they were taking the proposal of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization force seriously. White House Chief of Staff Joshua A. Bolten, however, cautioned that Hezbollah and Syria needed to show willingness to cease hostilities.

“We need to remember that the purpose of an international force has to be to maintain a sustainable cease-fire. And a cease-fire is sustainable only if we get at the root problem, which is Hezbollah,” Bolten said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Bolten and other officials said the U.S. was skeptical about offers from Syrian officials to engage in talks to resolve the situation.

“There’s going to have to be a pretty strong showing from the Syrians of genuine interest in withdrawing their long-standing support for Hezbollah, which is responsible for a good portion of this crisis,” Bolten said.

Rice, speaking to reporters while en route to the Middle East, rejected criticism that the administration was undermining efforts to bring peace by failing to have senior officials talk directly with the Syrians. She called such criticism “kind of a false hobby horse,” and said previous approaches to Damascus had been fruitless.

Israel has nothing but disdain for the 2,000-member U.N. force that has patrolled the border zone for nearly two decades. It says the force is ineffective at preventing attacks by Hezbollah and at times has abetted the guerrillas.

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Olmert also offered Sunday to hold direct talks with the Lebanese government, after last week rejecting a plea for a cease-fire from Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

“We have no war with the Lebanese people, and we have no intention to harm their quality of life,” Olmert told his Cabinet at its Sunday meeting. He called Siniora “a partner for dialogue.” Siniora told a television interviewer that it was “still early” to discuss a peacekeeping force.

It is not clear if these Israeli overtures are meant to ease Rice’s attempts to broker a settlement, or if Israel has become concerned about international criticism of its offensive.

The United States so far has placed blame for the conflict squarely on Hezbollah and its patrons, Syria and Iran, and has not offered any public criticism of Israel’s wide-ranging onslaught in Lebanon. On Sunday, the Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli officials believe they have American approval to press the offensive for another week before the United States will apply pressure to accede to a cease-fire.

Israel insists that any truce accord should include the freeing of its two soldiers seized July 12 in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah. It has rebuffed Hezbollah’s calls for a prisoner exchange, but there has been some speculation that the visiting German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, might help engineer such a swap, as he did in 2004 to secure the freedom of an Israeli businessman.

On other diplomatic fronts, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said after meeting Sunday with Bush and Rice that his government was urging, in addition to a cease-fire, the start of a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah and a delay in the dismantling of Hezbollah.

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U.S. officials said the Saudis had requested the session with Bush, and it was arranged to take place just before Rice’s departure for meetings this week in the Middle East and Italy with Israeli, Arab and European leaders.

While those terms may not be tenable for the Israelis, the Saudi interest is significant because of the desert kingdom’s ability to exert influence over Syria.

The frantic crush of foreign nationals leaving Lebanon had subsided slightly Sunday, after hundreds of thousands of people fled overland to Syria or by ships and charter flights to Cyprus and Turkey.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut said Sunday that it believed most Americans who wished to leave Lebanon had done so, but that there may yet be citizens stranded in the south, where the roads are routinely being bombed by the Israelis. About 10,000 Americans have been evacuated, 1,800 were scheduled to depart Sunday on the amphibious transport Trenton and another 2,000 may leave today.

Hana Kaakani of Phoenix and her two children, Tarek, 15, and Danya, 12, were among those waiting to leave Sunday. They had been visiting kin in Sidon and, after the Israelis bombed the town overnight, they decided to make a break for Beirut.

Kaakani said the trip from Sidon, which usually takes an hour or less, stretched to three hours because of choked traffic, the narrow mountain roads, and fear. “It was very bad,” she said. “We didn’t want to go on the [main] road because it is so dangerous.” Rafi Farhat, a database administrator from Kingston, N.Y., was also waiting to escape with his wife and two children, all of whom had been visiting relatives in south Lebanon.

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“It was bombs, noise, planes and rockets -- you name it,” he said. “We’ve heard so many horror stories, you don’t want to hear any more: cars in the road, bodies burning inside them, people leaving brothers and sisters behind in bombed buildings because they had to get out. You hear enough of those and you stop asking.”

Citizens from smaller, poorer countries were having a tougher time of it. Thousands of Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Sudanese and others, brought to Lebanon as domestic workers, were struggling to get home. Many were abandoned by their employers, who had already fled or sought refuge, according to the International Organization for Migration, which was attempting to help.

Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian official, said rebuilding Lebanese infrastructure, including roads, bridges and housing, could cost billions of dollars. He spoke to reporters as he inspected the devastation of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a predominantly Shiite, pro-Hez bollah neighborhood that has borne the brunt of Israeli airpower. Egeland had to step through streets carpeted in rubble, and block after block of partially collapsed apartment houses, their facades peeled and upper stories sheared off.

Egeland appealed urgently for safe passage for trucks poised to deliver food, medicine and other aid to displaced Lebanese civilians. Israel has eased its blockade of Beirut’s port to allow the passage of humanitarian supplies, but the continued bombardment of roads, which Israel says is necessary to prevent the transport of Hezbollah weapons and fighters, makes transit for relief trucks perilous.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A day of violence -- and diplomacy

Lebanon

Israeli airstrikes pummeled Beirut, Sidon and areas near Tyre. In Sidon, a Shiite religious complex was destroyed. Missiles landed near a convoy of Lebanese fleeing from the attacks around Tyre, killing at least four. A photographer for a Lebanese magazine was also reported killed as her taxi approached the scene.

Israel

More than a dozen Hezbollah rockets hit houses and vehicles in Haifa, killing two. About a dozen people were wounded in similar attacks across northern Israel as Hezbollah launched more than 90 rockets. Homemade rockets fired from the Gaza Strip also landed in Israel.

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Gaza Strip

An Israeli helicopter fired at least two missiles into a building in a neighborhood in northwest Gaza.

Ground fighting

The Israeli army said it seized two guerrillas in fighting in Maroun el Ras, a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah reported that three of its fighters were killed.

Evacuations

More Americans and Britons were removed from Beirut’s port. About 10,000 Americans have been evacuated, 1,800 were scheduled to depart Sunday and 2,000 more could leave today.

Humanitarian concerns

More than 700,000 Lebanese have fled their homes. Efforts were stepping up to bring food, medicine, blankets and generators to Lebanon, including the port city of Sidon, which has absorbed tens of thousands of refugees. The top U.N. humanitarian official called for at least $100 million in aid.

Diplomacy

Israel’s prime minister offered to hold direct talks with Lebanon while its defense minister said for the first time that it could accept an international force, possibly NATO-led, in southern Lebanon. The U.S. said it was considering the option, but would not contribute troops. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister delivered a letter from King Abdullah to President Bush asking him to intervene. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left for the Mideast to launch the first on-the-ground U.S. diplomacy.

*

King reported from Jerusalem and Kennedy from Beirut. Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Avivim, Israel; Megan K. Stack in Tyre; Judy Pasternak, Richard B. Schmitt and James Gerstenzang in Washington; and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report. Times staff writer Paul Richter, accompanying Rice, contributed from Shannon, Ireland.

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