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Diplomacy stalls


JERUSALEM -- Efforts by United Nations envoys to arrange a Middle East cease-fire made little progress yesterday, as Israel bombed new targets in Lebanon, Hezbollah fired more than 100 short-range rockets into northern Israel and the civilian death toll continued to climb.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed a special U.N. delegation here that Israel would continue its military campaign against the Shiite militant group Hezbollah until two abducted soldiers are released, and until the security of residents of northern Israel is assured.

About 500,000 Lebanese have been displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis have sought safety in bomb shelters since the fighting began last week.

At daybreak today, a small number of Israeli troops were operating just across the border inside southern Lebanon, looking for tunnels and weapons, the Israeli military said. The military did not provide any more details and gave no indication that action would be expanded into a larger operation.

Israeli army commanders said the military campaign would likely last several more weeks. The attacks and counterattacks by Hezbollah and Israel have killed 25 Israelis, both civilians and soldiers, and more than 200 Lebanese, mostly civilians.

The United States has refrained from calling for an immediate cease-fire, and Israel has said that eliminating Hezbollah as a threat to Israeli security remains one of its goals.

"We are beginning a diplomatic process in parallel to the military operations, which shall continue," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said after meeting with the U.N. officials. "The military objectives are to hit Hezbollah's infrastructure and physical strength. The diplomatic process is not intended to reduce the time available for the [military's] operations, but as an extension of it in order to avoid the need for additional operations in the future."

Two Israeli generals said that it would likely take weeks for the military to complete its operations.

"We will not be there for months and I very much hope that it will not be many weeks, but we need more time to achieve the very clear aims which have been set," Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski told Army Radio. "Fighting against terrorism has to be very precise, very systematic, and it takes time."

Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, sketched a similar schedule. "Everything can happen. It could take days and it could take weeks," he said. "I think we should work on the assumption that it will take weeks."

Israeli aircraft struck an army base outside Beirut yesterday and other areas in south Lebanon, killing 17 people, and Hezbollah rockets battered Israeli towns, killing an Israeli man in the seaside resort town of Nahariya while he was running to a bomb shelter.

Families in southern Lebanon, the site of most Israeli airstrikes, drove north on side roads, winding among orange and banana groves and waving improvised white flags from their car windows.

In an interview with the BBC, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Israel is "opening the gates of hell and madness" on his country. He urged Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, to release two captured Israeli soldiers but said Israel's response had been disproportionate.

President Bush said he suspects Syria is trying to reassert influence in Lebanon more than a year after Damascus ended what had effectively been a long-term military occupation of its smaller, weaker neighbor.

"We have made it very clear that Israel should be allowed to defend herself," Bush said in Washington. "We've asked that as she does so that she be mindful of the Saniora government. It's very important that this government in Lebanon succeed and survive."

The Israeli air force bombed a military base at Kfar Chima yesterday as soldiers rushed to their bomb shelters, the Lebanese military said. At least 11 soldiers were killed in an engineering unit and 35 were wounded, it said. The base is adjacent to Hezbollah strongholds often targeted by recent Israeli strikes.

Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr denounced the strike as a "massacre," saying the regiment's main job was to help rebuild infrastructure. The Lebanese army has largely stayed out of the fighting, confining itself to firing anti-aircraft guns at Israeli planes. But Israeli jets have struck Lebanese army positions.

At least five people were killed when a bomb hit a house in the village of Aitaroun, near the border, witnesses said. Israeli aircraft also struck southern Beirut and hit four trucks that Israeli officials said were bringing in weapons.

"That is intolerable terrorist activity," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

At least 100 rockets fell into Israel, hitting a string of towns, including the city of Haifa. More than 750 rockets have hit Israel since the violence began, forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take cover in underground shelters.

Most cities and towns in northern Israel have turned into ghost towns with many businesses shuttered and residents living in bomb shelters. Public support for the military operation remains high.

In a poll published in yesterday's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, 86 percent of respondents said that the military operation against Hezbollah was the right thing to do; 58 percent wanted Israel to keep fighting until Hezbollah is wiped out.

In the cease-fire plan under discussion by U.N. and Israeli officials yesterday, the two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah would be freed, rocket fire on Israel would end as would Israel's bombing of Lebanon. Hezbollah forces would be removed from southern Lebanon and be replaced with the Lebanese Army.

Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, suggested that Israel might be open to the idea of a temporary international force in south Lebanon to back the Lebanese Army, something Israel had earlier rejected.

But Olmert, the prime minister, remained cool to having an international force. "It is a good headline but our experience shows that there is nothing behind it," he said. "Even today there is a multinational force in Lebanon and we see what they are doing. I want to be cautious on this issue and it seems to me that it is too early to discuss it."

U.N. negotiator Terje Roed-Larsen said after meeting with Livni that "concrete ideas" had been presented to the Israeli government to solve the crisis and that Israel would deliberate on them in the coming days.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said he does not entirely rule out an exchange of prisoners with the kidnappers of the two Israeli soldiers. "At the time and in the manner in which the operation will end, I think that in the end we will bring the soldiers home," Dichter told Army Radio, "and if one of the ways has to be negotiation over Lebanese imprisoned in Israel, I think that on that day we have to consider that option."


Wire services contributed to this article.

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