Israel pounds Beirut, Muslim nations outraged

Israel pounds Beirut, Muslim nations outraged
BEIRUT (AFP) - Israeli warplanes thundered over Beirut after a six-day lull in an onslaught that Lebanese officials say has killed more than 900 nationals and wounded over 3,000 others in three weeks.

As Muslim nations expressed outrage at international "double standards" over the Israeli offensive, premier Ehud Olmert said his country would pursue its drive against Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon until an international force of some 15,000 combat-ready troops was deployed there.

The difficulty of assembling such a force was highlighted when the
United Nations postponed for the second time a meeting of countries that might contribute troops.

With the West in diplomatic disarray, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country is a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, told a Muslim summit: "The real cure for the conflict is elimination of the Zionist regime, but there should be first an immediate ceasefire."

The summit of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded an immediate ceasefire, with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi telling delegates: "Muslims are angry even in moderate Muslim countries."

Over the Lebanese capital, explosions lit the night sky as aircraft circled overhead carrying out the first such strikes on the battered city since
Israel declared a partial bombing pause Sunday.

Israeli planes dropped flyers on south Beirut close to the international airport, warning that bombing of the area would be extended and urging civilians to leave.

No details of casualties were immediately available, but the southern suburbs of Beirut, considered a stronghold of the Hezbollah Shiite militia, have been largely reduced to rubble after heavy previous attacks.

Israeli jets also struck the northern region of Akkar, near the Syrian border, the second attack there in 24 hours after two bridges were hit early Wednesday, Lebanese police said.

During the night, seven civilians, including an 80-year-old couple, were killed in an intense bombardment of the Tyre region in south Lebanon.

Ground incursions also gathered pace with Israeli public radio reporting that nearly 10,000 troops were battling Hezbollah fighters around a dozen villages.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed and four others were wounded during clashes with Hezbollah guerrillas in the flashpoint village of Aita ash-Shaab in southern Lebanon, the army said.

Al-Arabiya news channel said a fourth soldier was killed and another wounded in firefights in Adayssa in south Lebanon but Israel declined to comment on the report.

A total of 40 Israeli soldiers have been confirmed killed since the start of the offensive. Israel claims to have killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters but the militia says its losses are much lower.

The fresh strikes came after Hezbollah fired a record salvo of rockets at Israel Wednesday, in apparent retaliation for an Israeli commando operation in which five suspected guerrillas were snatched from a hospital.

One Israeli was killed in the barrage of 230 rockets, the heaviest in 23 days of fighting sparked by Hezbollah's July 12 attack inside Israel in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured.

On Thursday, seven people were killed by rocket fire as police reported that more than 100 rockets had slammed into northern Israel.

In Tehran, one of the Iranian founders of Hezbollah said the militia had missiles which "leave no spot in Israel unreachable".

"Hezbollah's arsenal not only includes Katyusha missiles, but also Zelzal-2 missiles, which could hit targets as far as 250 kilometres (155 miles), leaving no spot in Israel unreachable," Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pour, a cleric, told the centrist Shargh newspaper.

And Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his militia would retaliate for strikes on Beirut by hitting Tel Aviv with a new arsenal.

The repeated barrages came as a blow to Israeli claims to have hobbled Hezbollah's ability to launch rockets, the Jewish state's main stated objective of its war in southern Lebanon.

A military source told AFP that, for the first time, Hezbollah fired a Syrian-made Fajer-5 missile, with a longer range and larger warhead, hitting the northern town of Rosh Pina but causing no casualties.

The militia has fired more than 2,000 rockets at northern Israel since the start of the offensive, killing 25 civilians.

Israel had called a 48-hour partial halt to air attacks after it raided the Lebanese village of Qana Sunday. Reports that 52 civilians had been killed, mostly women and children, fuelled worldwide calls for an immediate ceasefire.

On Thursday Lebanese officials reduced the Qana toll to 28 dead, including 16 children.

An Israeli army probe said the military did not know there were civilians in the building and would not have attacked if they had.

New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch issued a report branding some Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians as "war crimes", and said it was "wrong" to blame the high death toll on Hezbollah fighters using civilians as shields.

Hezbollah meanwhile said four of its fighters were killed Thursday, bringing the number of guerrillas killed since the start of the offensive to 48.

The UN force in south Lebanon said the Israeli army is holding positions in seven different locations in Lebanese territory after launching two new ground incursions.

Olmert said the ground offensive would not stop until an international force of some 15,000 combat ready troops was deployed in southern Lebanon with a view to disarming Hezbollah.

"There should be overlap in terms of time so that we will pull out and they will come in without a time gap that will allow Hezbollah to rebuild their position in the south of Lebanon," he told The Times of London.

France issued a new draft resolution on the crisis, but amid prolonged talks with the United States expressed pessimism about hopes for UN Security Council action on the Israel-Hezbollah conflict before next week.

The new text still calls for an "immediate cessation of hostilities" but also calls for "full respect" by both sides of the Blue Line, the marker used by the UN to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in May 2000 after a 22-year occupation.

Differences between France and the United States also forced the United Nations to again postpone a planned meeting Thursday of potential contributors to an international force.

The UN failure to act drew the ire of the Muslim nations.

Prominent members of the 57-nation bloc, including
Iran as well as allies of the US "war on terror" such as Turkey and Pakistan, condemned what they called the "relentless Israeli aggression" and called for an immediate truce.

Meanwhile Israel pressed its month-long offensive into the
Gaza Strip with eight Palestinians, including a 12-year-old boy, being killed in military strikes around Rafah in southern Gaza.