Wed, Aug 09, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Beirut hoping troop offer can result in a ceasefire

AGENCIES , BEIRUT AND LONDON

The embattled Lebanese government yesterday was hoping an offer to deploy its troops to the international border would secure Israel's agreement to cease fire and withdraw its troops from the south.

The "historic" agreement to send troops to the southern stronghold of Shiite militant group Hezbollah for the first time in decades met with a cautious welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who described it as an "interesting step."

The decision, adopted at an extraordinary Cabinet meeting late on Monday, came as world powers wrangled at the UN over the wording of a Security Council resolution to end the four-week-old Lebanon conflict.

"The decision to send the army is a way to help Lebanon's efforts to at least amend the resolution which in its current form favors Israel," political analyst Walid Sharara said.

"It tells the world that Lebanon is capable of extending its control over all its territory without the need for an international force, and thus would foil Israeli attempts to continue to occupy parts of the south," he said.

The Lebanese government said it was ready to deploy 15,000 troops to the south once Israel had pulled out all its soldiers from the area which had been under Hezbollah's control since Israel's 2000 pullout.

The deployment would be the first major mobilization of Lebanese troops to the border region since the late 1960s when Palestinian and Lebanese fighters established themselves in the area for a guerrilla war against Israel.

Successive governments had refused to deploy troops to the south after Israel ended its 22-year occupation, saying any such force would simply serve as a "police force" to protect Israel.

Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said the "historic decision settles the issue of Lebanon's defense strategy," which had been the subject of fierce debate for months within Lebanon's deeply divided political elite before Israel launched its offensive on July 12.

"It confirms that the only national defense strategy is the one drawn [up] by the government," he said.

Hezbollah officials were not available for comment, but Defense Minister Elias Murr said the decision was adopted unanimously by the government, including Hezbollah's two ministers.

"This is a clear message to the international community and the UN Security Council before its meeting about Lebanon's clear intention to send the army" to the south, he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli air raids and ground battles with Hezbollah guerrillas convulsed south Lebanon yesterday amid diplomatic wrangling over how to end a four-week-old war that has claimed more than 1,000 lives.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, bringing Israel's military and civilian death toll to 100 in the conflict touched off by Hezbollah's capture of two soldiers on July 12. At least 961 people have been killed in Lebanon.

Israel's efforts to push Hezbollah back from the border and stop rocket fire into Israel have met stiff resistance.

Anti-tank missiles killed a soldier and wounded five near the town of Bint Jbeil, the Israeli army said. Two died in a firefight with Hezbollah in the border village of Labbouneh.

Dozens more Hezbollah rockets landed in northern Israel, but there were no reports of casualties.

Hezbollah said its guerrillas destroyed an Israeli bulldozer near Bint Jbeil. It said two tanks were also destroyed near the village of Aitaroun, killing or wounding the crews.

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