BEIRUT (AFP) -Israeli warplanes have launched a new wave of bombing raids on Lebanon, killing 14 civilians and turning homes to rubble, after the Jewish state suffered its deadliest day since the conflict began.
At least one Israeli soldier was also killed in battles with Hezbollah guerrillas around a flashpoint border town, with no signs of a let-up in almost four weeks of fighting that has killed well over 1,000 people.
And with international efforts to broker a ceasefire faltering, Israeli officials warned they would continue the offensive to cripple the fundamentalist Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement regardless of any truce.
At UN headquarters in New York, where the Security Council had been expected to adopt a resolution by Tuesday, diplomats said they could no longer say when a vote would take place after Lebanon objected to the text.
Arab foreign ministers were due to meet in Beirut to discuss an alternative seven-point plan proposed by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to bring a halt to 27 days of warfare.
As day broke over Beirut, Israeli fighter-bombers pounded Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs with bombs and air-to-ground missiles, sending huge clouds of black smoke into the air over districts that had already been largely reduced to rubble.
Warplanes also struck houses in villages around the port of Sidon, the main city in the south and carried out a dozen raids on roads linking the region with Syria, including the highway leading to the main border crossing.
At least 14 civilians were killed, and in one village television pictures showed workers hacking with axes through the rubble and twisted metal struts of a house in an apparent bid to find survivors or recover corpses.
The road to Syria, one of the only ways out of Lebanon for people trying to flee the conflict, has been knocked out repeatedly as Israel keeps up its blockade that has left the country almost completely cut off from the outside world.
Israeli troops were also engaged in clashes with Hezbollah in a bid to eradicate the Shiite fighters from the border area and halt rocket attacks that killed 15 people on Sunday alone, the deadliest single day for Israel.
The army said one soldier was killed around the border town of Bint Jbeil — the scene of the fiercest ground combat of the conflict, bringing to 59 the number of military personnel killed.
Another 36 civilians have been killed in a barrage of Hezbollah rocket fire from across the border.
Israel’s offensive launched July 12 has killed more than 1,000 people in Lebanon, wounded more than 3,300 and driven more than 915,000 — close to a quarter of the population — from their homes, according to official tolls.
But with world powers unable to agree on a resolution to end the bloodiest cross-border fighting in a quarter century, Israel vowed it would plough on until it crushed Hezbollah.
“We are continuing operations to clean up southern Lebanon and to meet the goals we have set ourselves, regardless of any possible ceasefire,” said the commander of Israel’s northern military region, General Alon Friedman.
His comments were echoed by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who said the “number one objective is to stop the rocket fire.”
“(The army) has not been given any time limit to achieve this goal,” he said, warning that operations will continue “with no regards to a ceasefire as long as the objective is not achieved.”
In war-ravaged Beirut, Arab foreign ministers were to meet at talks to be chaired by Arab League secretary general Amr Mussa who has criticised the UN efforts and said “some great powers were obstructing the ceasefire.”
The ministers are due to discuss holding a summit of Arab leaders to help put an end to the fighting in Lebanon, Mussa said.
The UN Security Council is debating a ceasefire resolution drafted by France and the United States which calls for a “full cessation of hostilities” and the deployment of an international force in a buffer zone in south Lebanon.
Siniora has asked for major changes to the draft, saying it fails to insist on an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon, which had pulled out of the country in 2000 after a bloody 22-year occupation.
Israel unleashed its military might against Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas snatched two soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid, just a few weeks after launching a similar offensive against the Gaza Strip to retrieve another captive serviceman.
The Israeli military said Sunday it had captured a Hezbollah militant suspected of involvement in the July raid but there was no word on the fate of the soldiers who Hezbollah insists must be exchanged for Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.
The tit-for-tat attacks continued after the UN Security Council began debating a French-US draft resolution which contains plans for an international force to police a buffer zone in southern Lebanon once agreement on a long term political settlement is reached.
Lebanon complained that the draft did not call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces, something which Israel says is possible only when a 15,000-strong international force is deployed to disarm Hezbollah.
Siniora’s plan calls for an Israeli withdrawal, the expansion of the UN peacekeeping force sent to the area after a previous invasion in 1978, the deployment of the Lebanese army to the border and the disarming of Hezbollah guerrillas.
The UN Security Council was to hold new consultations on its draft resolution on Monday. France had earlier said it expected the 15-member council to vote on the text on Monday or Tuesday.
But in light of the Lebanese objections, diplomats said it was no longer certain when a vote would take place.
As for Hezbollah, one of its two ministers in the Lebanese government, Mohammed Fneish, said: “When the Israeli aggression ceases, very simply, we will stop (fighting) on condition that no Israeli soldier remains inside Lebanese land.”
Both Iran and Syria, which support the Shiite Muslim guerrillas, have similarly rejected.
And Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned of regional war if Damascus came under attack.
But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appealed for swift passage of the resolution by the Security Council’s 15 members, saying it was a “first step” to lasting peace.
Rice sought to ease Lebanese concerns about the lack of any reference to the need for an Israeli pullout.
“No one wants to see Israel permanently in Lebanon,” she told reporters after talks Sunday at President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
“Nobody wants to do that,” Rice said. “The Israelis don’t want it, the Lebanese don’t want it, so I think there is a basis here for moving forward.”