Israel shuts down south Lebanon

Olmert considers Lebanese offer to send 15,000 troops to area


JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that a Lebanese offer to send troops to south Lebanon was "interesting" and would be studied, even as the Israeli army ratcheted up its campaign in the area, warning residents that it would bomb any moving vehicles south of the Litani River, about 20 miles from the Israeli border.

Israeli airstrikes killed 13 people in a town in south Lebanon, according to hospital reports. In ground fighting near the Israeli-Lebanese border, five Israeli soldiers and more than 20 Hezbollah guerrillas were killed, the Israeli army said.

Early today, Israel's military targeted Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp from the air, killing at least one person and wounding three others. Lebanese and Palestinian officials said an Israeli gunship shelled the Ein el-Hilweh camp, but Israel's military called the attack an airstrike against a house used by Hezbollah guerrillas. The identities of the casualties weren't immediately known.

Olmert's comments came after Lebanon offered to send 15,000 troops to the southern part of the country to assert control over the area held by Hezbollah when the fighting broke out a month ago. Lebanon's plan was endorsed by Hezbollah.

"This decision is an interesting step that we will have to study, examine and see all its implications, to what degree it is practical in a reasonable period of time," Olmert said at a news conference.

"We have no intention of staying in Lebanese territory longer than necessary to achieve the goals of the government ... to remove the threat of firing at residents of the north of the country and move Hezbollah away from those areas," Olmert said. "The faster we can leave southern Lebanon the happier we will be, as long as we can ensure that we have achieved the goals we have set for ourselves."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the Lebanese offer "a significant proposal" and said that the Lebanese forces "would need to be supported by international forces."

But even as Olmert expressed a willingness to consider the Lebanese initiative, he said that his security Cabinet would meet today to consider deepening Israel's ground offensive, which has advanced about four miles into Lebanon, according to the army.

Leaflets dropped by Israeli aircraft Monday night and yesterday declared an effective no-drive zone south of the Litani River. The ban emptied the streets of Tyre, the main city in the area, and left remaining civilians in villages across the south unable to flee.

Addressed to "Lebanese citizens located south of the Litani River," the leaflet said: "The Israel Defense Forces will escalate their operations and hit hard at the terrorist elements which use you as human shields, and who fire rockets from your homes at the State of Israel. Any vehicle of any kind that will move south of the Litani River will be bombed on suspicion of transferring rockets, military equipment and terrorists. You should know that anyone who moves in any car puts his life in danger."

A military spokeswoman said the ban did not apply to Red Cross and United Nations relief convoys traveling in coordination with the Israeli army. She said the ban had been imposed in an attempt to choke off supplies to guerrillas who have continued firing barrages of rockets into northern Israel. More than 160 rockets landed yesterday in communities across northern Israel, causing damage to property and several injuries, the army said.

The United Nations suspended attempts to send relief to southern Lebanon because of heavy shelling in the area, said Christian Berthiaume of the World Food Program in Geneva. But aid shipments were arriving elsewhere in the country.

"The Israeli forces were warning today, saying that there shouldn't be any vehicles in the southern part of Lebanon," Berthiaume said. "They had exempted humanitarian convoys [but] we decided not to go because there has been heavy shelling the last 24 hours."

The WFP and other U.N. relief agencies said they were frustrated over the difficulty of moving aid into Lebanon and said what they had brought in so far was insufficient.

Yesterday, Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas battled in south Lebanon for control of villages that have served as launching sites for rockets during the conflict. The army said two soldiers were killed in Labouna, another was killed by an anti-tank rocket that hit an armored vehicle at Debel, and two more were killed in fighting in Bint Jbail, a major Hezbollah stronghold that the army previously claimed was under its control.

Israeli aircraft bombed buildings in Ghaziyeh, a Shiite town southeast of Sidon, killing 13 people shortly after a funeral for 15 people killed in strikes Monday, hospitals reported. Witnesses said one of the buildings hit belonged to a cleric linked to Hezbollah, but it was unclear whether he was among the casualties. The army said that it had targeted buildings used by senior Hezbollah officials and that it had no information on casualties.

In a southern suburb of Beirut, workers pulled 14 more bodies from the rubble of two buildings struck by Israeli aircraft on Monday, raising the death toll from that attack to 30, the Associated Press reported.

Nearly 700 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Lebanon since the start of the fighting, and more than 100 Israelis have died, 39 of them civilians.

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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