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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hezbollah fires 250 rockets into Israel

JERUSALEM - Hezbollah fired more than 250 rockets into Israel on Sunday, the worst barrage against northern Israel since the fighting began more than a month ago, the army said. The rockets killed one Israeli during the day.

After a stormy debate Sunday, Israel's Cabinet approved a Mideast cease-fire, agreeing to silence the army's guns in less than 24 hours. The Israeli military embarked on a last-minute push to devastate Hezbollah guerrillas, rocketing south Beirut with missiles.

The 24-0 vote, with one abstention, came a day after the Lebanese government approved the agreement and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his grudging consent. The truce was to take effect Monday morning.

But questions as to the truce's durability quickly arose Sunday, when the Lebanese Cabinet canceled a critical meeting that was supposed to discuss the deployment of 15,000 troops to southern Lebanon, a key part of the cease-fire deal. Published reports said the Cabinet had been sharply divided over demands that Hezbollah surrender its weapons.

A heated debate erupted during Israel's Cabinet session, with minister Ofir Pines-Paz criticizing the government's decision to order an expanded ground offensive in the days before the cease-fire is to take effect.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the cease-fire agreement would ensure that "Hezbollah won't continue to exist as a state within a state."

"The Lebanese government is our address for every problem or violation of the agreement," Army Radio quoted him as saying.

The Israeli Cabinet session came as some 30,000 Israeli troops fought heavy battles with Hezbollah a day after 24 soldiers were killed in the highest Israeli toll of the monthlong war.

As the vote took place, Israeli shells slammed into the hard-hit Dahiyeh suburb, a Hezbollah stronghold just south of Beirut. Lebanese television reports said the strike destroyed a complex of eight residential buildings. TV footage panned across massive damage that appeared to stretch for several hundred yards in all directions.

An Associated Press photographer who reached the scene saw the body of one child being removed from the wreckage.

As explosions reverberated across the Lebanese capital, and there were reports of other strikes south of the city on the Christian town of Damour and a nearby village, dl-Naameh.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli warplanes fired missiles into gasoline stations in the southern port city of Tyre, killing at least 15 people in those and other attacks. Huge fires could be seen near the al-Bass Palestinian refugee camp north of Tyre and near the Najem hospital in the city.

Israeli planes also attacked villages near Nabatiyeh north of the Litani River, killing three men.

In all, at least 23 Israeli missiles were launched as the country's warplanes ranged across the skies in Lebanon.

The cease-fire was to go into effect at 8 a.m Monday. After a halt in fighting, some 15,000 Lebanese troops and an equal number of U.N. forces were to be deployed in south Lebanon and create a Hezbollah-free zone, from the Israel-Lebanon border to Lebanon's Litani River, 18 miles away.

Israel said it hopes Lebanese troops will start deploying quickly, within a week or two.

"When the Lebanese and multinational force enters, Israel will withdraw and not before," Israeli Cabinet minister Yaacov Edri said after the Cabinet vote.

Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz abstained in the vote, said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Lebanese government approved the deal Saturday, and Nasrallah signaled grudging acceptance, but also warned that "the war has not ended." On Sunday, Hezbollah fired more than 150 rockets at northern Israel, killing an Israeli man.

In the Cabinet meeting, Olmert praised the cease-fire agreement approved by the U.N. Security Council, saying it will prevent a return to the status quo in which Hezbollah ran a state-within-a-state in south Lebanon, participants said.

The deal was seen at best as a draw with Hezbollah, and some felt Israel — unable to subdue a guerrillas force — had lost.

Neither the Lebanese army nor U.N. forces can be counted on to challenge Hezbollah and prevent the Iran-supplied guerrillas from rearming, military experts and commentators said.

The deal buys a period of calm, at best, and sets the region up for the next war with Tehran's proxy army, critics said. The truce will be "a time-out until the next confrontation, and maybe not even this," commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily.

The Cabinet session was overshadowed by rising Israeli casualties. Twenty-four soldiers were killed Saturday and at least 73 wounded.

Hezbollah appeared to be fighting as fiercely as ever. The guerrillas shot down an Israeli helicopter, a first in the war, and killed five crew members. Other troops were killed by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles. The army said it killed more than 50 Hezbollah fighters. The guerrillas reported three deaths but gave no date.

The violence has claimed more than 900 lives: at least 763 in Lebanon — mostly civilians_ and 147 Israelis, including 109 soldiers. On Saturday, 19 Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli air raids.

President Bush had an 8-minute phone call Saturday with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to discuss the truce. The White House said it is determined to vanquish the hold of Hezbollah — and that of its Syrian and Iranian benefactors — on the south.

"These steps are designed to stop Hezbollah from acting as a state within a state, and put an end to Iran and Syria's efforts to hold the Lebanese people hostage to their own extremist agenda," Bush said.

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