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Israel suffers heaviest blow, presses attack in Lebanon

UN vote seen on truce plan

JERUSALEM -- Israel absorbed the heaviest blow of its 3 1/2-week-old war against Hezbollah yesterday, with a dozen reservists killed in a rocket strike at a military staging area and at least three people killed and dozens hurt by a volley that exploded in the heart of Haifa.

Amid the growing bloodshed, Israel signaled its determination to seize the battlefield advantage while UN action is pending on a cease-fire proposal crafted by the United States and France.

Israeli warplanes struck scores of targets across Lebanon, killing at least 25 people and injuring dozens. Powerful explosions echoed across Beirut's southern suburbs early today and the Israeli military said that Hezbollah strongholds in the eastern Bekaa Valley were hit overnight as well.

Near-constant Israeli artillery barrages thundered north across the border into Lebanon throughout yesterday, even as Hezbollah guerrillas fired more than 160 rockets into northern Israel and fought Israeli troops in close-quarters combat in a string of villages close to the frontier.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned yesterday that the proposed UN resolution might not halt the fighting immediately.

``I would hope that you would see very early on an end to large-scale violence . . . the firing of rockets that needs to stop for the next phase," Rice said. But, she added, ``we can't rule out that there could be skirmishes for some time to come."

Rice said she hoped for a vote on the resolution today or tomorrow.

Lebanese officials criticized the draft, saying that unless it were overhauled, it would do nothing to quell the warfare. They said that the language left the door open for Israel to keep up its crippling attacks and appealed for the international community to order it to remove its ground troops from southern Lebanon.

``It is against Lebanese interests and against peace," parliament speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Shi'ite Amal party, said of the document. ``This draft proposal will keep the doors open for war."

Mohammed Shatah, a senior aide to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon, said the proposal lacked ``immediate steps to make it stick."

Syria, one of Hezbollah's main patrons, also faulted the draft. On a visit to Beirut, Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said the plan was ``a recipe for the continuation of the war."

Israel maintained official silence on the proposal, which calls for an immediate end to hostilities and seeks to lay the groundwork for a second resolution that would establish an international force to support the Lebanese Army in the border zone. However, senior officials indicated that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government considered its terms generally favorable.

In the meantime, Israel said it would press ahead with its offensive, meant to purge Hezbollah from a 4-mile-deep strip of southern Lebanon. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz today also cited a senior military strategist as saying Israel would consider striking strategic infrastructure and Lebanese government installations.

``We must continue the fighting, continue to hit whomever we can hit from Hezbollah," Justice Minister Haim Ramon said on Israel's Army Radio.

Although the Israeli public still broadly supports the government's war aims, yesterday's deaths staggered the country, not only because they represented the highest single-day toll since the conflict began, but because the circumstances were particularly painful.

The 12 Israeli soldiers were killed as they congregated at the entrance to Kfar Giladi, a communal farm on the border being used as a makeshift military base. The deaths in a single incident of so many reservists, citizen-soldiers who left jobs and families to rush to the war front, were an enormous blow to national morale, worsened by reports that the fatalities might have been prevented if the soldiers had taken cover when warning sirens sounded.

Haifa, where at least three people were killed yesterday, suffered a greater one-time loss of life July 16, when eight railway workers were killed in a rocket strike. But Israelis shuddered at televised scenes of chaos and panic in a vibrant city that is considered one of the country's jewels.

Sirens wailed, smoke billowed over the skyline, and rescue workers scrambled to clear rubble to check for survivors.

Haifa has long been a city where Jews and Arabs have lived side by side, and all three of the dead were members of Israel's Arab minority. The dead included an elderly man and woman who were having coffee in a garden outside a building that took a direct hit. Arriving at the scene, the man's daughter cried in Arabic: ``Is father dead?"

While previous strikes on Haifa had been isolated, this one involved a concerted volley that hit one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, raising the specter of more rockets hitting densely populated areas in the city of nearly 300,000 residents.

Hours after yesterday evening's rocket hit on Haifa, Israeli warplanes targeted missile launchers in the Lebanese village of Qana that the army said were used in the attack.

``This attack in Haifa is precisely what Israel is trying to prevent. This is vivid proof of the necessity of Israel's operation," said David Baker, an official in the prime minister's office. ``We will not allow Hezbollah to terrorize our cities."

The day's events stoked fears of a surge in casualties while the United Nations Security Council prepares to vote on the proposed resolution, with each side seeking to inflict heavy blows and gain an edge in negotiations to come.

Nearly 600 Lebanese and 94 Israelis have died since the conflict erupted July 12 when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

In Lebanon, Israeli airstrikes ranged from Beirut's southern suburbs to the country's southern fringe. Three Chinese peacekeepers were wounded when the UN post they were manning was struck by a Hezbollah rocket, the UN peacekeeping force announced.

More than a dozen airstrikes early today also targeted the area of eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television said new fighting on the ground erupted early today, with Hezbollah fighters reportedly engaging Israeli troops advancing on border villages in the south.

The skyline above southern Beirut was a haze of acrid smoke late in the afternoon as nearly two dozen airstrikes and volleys from Israeli warships positioned offshore hit the neighborhoods of Bir Abed, Mesharafiya, and Dahiyeh, setting at least 14 buildings ablaze.

Roads in and around Lebanon's southern port city of Tyre were nearly empty, and people who tried to navigate the streets amid airstrikes and shelling risked their lives.

A man driving south toward Tyre, his van stuffed with bread, was killed on a stretch of road through banana groves.

Another strike, on a Lebanese Army position south of Tyre, killed one soldier, wounded another, and left six men missing. And on a main road in Tyre, a man selling tiny cups of coffee on a main street was killed.

A day after Israel dropped leaflets warning residents to leave the Sunni Muslim city of Sidon, farther up the coast, restaurants were empty and streets were unusually deserted.

Officials said a few villages in the mountains outside Sidon, including Hazhi and Charki Saida, were struck overnight.

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