Cease-fire accepted by Israel, Lebanon

Delays and loopholes diminish likelihood of true end to hostilities


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israel and Lebanon have agreed to a cease-fire starting early tomorrow, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday. But his announcement did little to slow the violence: Israel poured thousands of troops and tanks into southern Lebanon, pushing north toward the Litani River in a major new offensive.

Just hours after the passage of a U.N. resolution calling for a "full" cessation of hostilities, columns of tanks rumbled across the border and helicopters ferried commandos deep inside Lebanon in what Israeli officials described as the biggest military operation since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Israel's Cabinet is expected to approve the cease-fire resolution at its regular weekly meeting today.

The offensive tripled the number of forces Israel has fighting in Lebanon to an estimated 30,000 and cast into doubt hopes that the new resolution, which specifies no timetable for a cease-fire, will herald a swift end to the conflict.

Casualties mounted as Israeli troops pushed toward the Litani, bypassing Hezbollah strongholds in some instances in a bid to gain as much ground as possible before a cease-fire.

The Israeli army said 19 soldiers were killed yesterday, making it the highest one-day toll for the Jewish state since the war erupted, the Associated Press reported. In a statement today, the military also said that the five-member crew of a helicopter downed by Hezbollah was missing, AP reported.

Lebanese police reported 19 people killed in a fresh wave of airstrikes, including 15 killed in one village in south Lebanon. Warplanes also knocked out the last remaining bridge linking Lebanon to Syria in the far north of the country.

"The fighting will continue until the moment the cease-fire is announced," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said.

Lebanon's Cabinet, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, unanimously approved the U.N. resolution in a late-night meeting yesterday. But a second Cabinet meeting was scheduled for today amid reports that the two Hezbollah ministers present had dissented from portions of the plan and would not agree to disarm in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered a cautious endorsement of the resolution, delivering a televised statement in which he said Hezbollah would "cooperate" with the Lebanese Army and the expanded United Nations force due to be deployed in the south. Hezbollah fighters will stop fighting as soon as a cease-fire goes into effect, he said.

"Whenever the Israeli aggression stops, the action of the resistance will stop," he said, speaking on Hezbollah's al-Manar station.

But Nasrallah also said that Hezbollah fighters would continue to "resist" Israeli troops as long as they remain in Lebanon and that he had "reservations" about the U.N. resolution.

"As long as there are Israeli military movements and aggression and Israeli soldiers are occupying our land, it is our natural right to confront them and defend our land and our homes," he said.

"We should not be deceived into believing the war has ended," he said. "The war did not end, obviously, because the aggression is continuing. Nothing has changed today, and it appears tomorrow nothing will change either."

Peretz said the Israeli Defense Forces would be entitled to retaliate against any attacks on its soldiers in southern Lebanon.

"If anyone dares to use force against IDF soldiers, we will view it as a violation of the cease-fire agreement, and we will give the army all the capabilities to defend itself," he told reporters.

With Hezbollah vowing to continue attacking Israeli troops as long as they are occupying Lebanon, and Israel in the process of seizing more territory, the fighting could continue for days or even weeks before the new U.N. force is ready to deploy, said Timor Goksel, a former senior official with the 2,000-strong U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon currently deployed in the south.

The U.N. resolution, approved after weeks of diplomatic haggling, envisages 15,000 U.N. forces deploying in south Lebanon alongside 15,000 Lebanese Army soldiers, as Israeli troops simultaneously withdraw. But it does not specify how or when the "cessation of hostilities" should take hold ahead of that, and it allows Israel to continue defensive operations in the meantime.

"It's a license to both sides to continue fighting," said Goksel, who teaches at the American University of Beirut. "There are too many loopholes."

While the resolution states that only the Lebanese army and the U.N. force will be authorized to carry arms in the area south of the Litani, it does not specify a mechanism for the disarmament of Hezbollah, something Hezbollah is assumed to have implicitly agreed to by offering its support to the deployment of the Lebanese army.

But Nasrallah did not mention disarmament in his speech and said he would raise his "reservations" about the plan only after a cease-fire goes into effect.

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