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Israel takes Lebanon high ground

Occupies strategic site, delays push as talks progress

IBL EL-SAQI, Lebanon -- Israel grabbed strategic high ground in south Lebanon yesterday but delayed a major push northward as diplomats cited progress toward agreement on a UN cease-fire resolution that could soon go to a vote.

With Israeli troops closer to Beirut than at any time since the war began, diplomats said they were close to unlocking the stalemate over a UN effort toward a cease-fire. The US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said a vote was possible today.

The United States and France have been trying to bridge differences over a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Early today, eight powerful explosions resounded across Beirut and local media reports said Israeli jets were pounding Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Dahieh suburb. The reports said a bridge also was hit in Akkar Province, 60 miles north of Beirut. There was no immediate word of casualties.

Israeli ground troops took control of the mainly Christian town of Marjayoun before dawn yesterday and blasted away throughout the day at strongly fortified Hezbollah positions in several directions.

An Israeli soldier was killed and two were wounded in battles with Hezbollah guerrillas yesterday, a day after the Israeli military had its worst one-day military loss, with 15 soldiers killed.

More than 800 people have died in the monthlong conflict, including 715 in Lebanon.

A huge explosion rocked the center of the town and the surrounding countryside around sunset, and a big fire could be seen from a vantage point in Ibl el-Saqi, about 2 miles to the east.

The fighting began July 12 after a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three.

At the same time, the army still was within about 5 miles of the Israeli border. Marjayoun, which sits near major road junctions in the south, lies due north of Israel's Galilee panhandle, which juts north into Lebanon.

Marjayoun was used as the command center for the Israeli army and its allied Lebanese militia during an 18-year occupation of south Lebanon that ended in 2000.

The high ground around Marjayoun, including the village of Blatt, overlooks the Litani River valley, one of the staging sites for Hezbollah's relentless rocket assaults on Israel.

Israel has asked the Bush administration to speed delivery of M-26 short-range rockets armed with cluster munitions that explode over a wide area, The New York Times reported in today's editions, citing two American officials.

The stepped-up sale of the rockets, which could be used to strike Hezbollah missile sites, is expected to be approved, the officials said.

Diplomatic efforts had stalled as the Lebanese called for Israeli troops to start pulling out once hostilities end and Beirut sends 15,000 troops to the south, while Israel has insisted on staying in southern Lebanon until a robust international force is deployed, which could take weeks or months.

``We've closed some of the areas of disagreement with the French," Bolton said.

Suggestions that a new resolution was in the works also emerged.

``A new proposal is being drafted, which has positive significance that may bring the war to an end," an Israeli member of parliament, Otniel Schneller, quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel as saying. ``But if the draft is not accepted there is the Cabinet decision."

The Israeli Security Cabinet authorized Olmert to expand the offensive in Lebanon, but Israeli officials said they would hold off to give diplomacy more time to work.

``If we can achieve that by diplomatic means and are sure that there is an intention to implement that document, we shall definitely be in a position where the military operation has achieved diplomatic space and a new situation has been created here in the north," Defense Minister Amir Peretz of Israel said.

But he warned Israel was ready to use ``all of the tools" to cripple Hezbollah if efforts toward a cease-fire failed.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora of Lebanon met twice yesterday with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman.

An aide to the Lebanese leader who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information said new ideas for ending the fighting involved combining two envisioned resolutions into one document.

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