BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP – Israel expanded its assault on Lebanon Friday, launching its first major attack on the Christian heartland north of Beirut and severing the last significant road link to Syria.
Hezbollah renewed attacks on northern Israel, killing two civilians in a barrage of 120 rockets.
An Israeli airstrike hit dozens of farm workers loading vegetables near the Lebanon-Syria border, killing 28, the workers’ foreman and a Lebanese official said.
Five Lebanese civilians were killed and 19 wounded in the Israeli airstrikes north of the capital in Christian areas where Hezbollah has little support or presence, including the picturesque coastal resort of Jounieh.
In separate air raids near Beirut’s airport and southern suburbs, a Lebanese soldier was killed and two soldiers and four civilians were wounded, security officials and witnesses said. The predominantly Shiite Muslim sector is largely controlled by Hezbollah guerrillas. Israel said Hezbollah facilities and a Hamas office were targeted.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile during heavy fighting in a southern Lebanese village where the militant group had been launching rockets, the army said.
The Israeli attacks on the four bridges on the main north-south coastal highway linking Beirut to Syria severed the only remaining major road link between Lebanon and Syria. The 90-minute drive to the Syrian border takes at least double the time on the small coastal road that remains open.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a staunch pro-Syrian and close ally of Hezbollah, charged that Israel is trying to pressure Lebanon to accept its conditions for a cease-fire , which include Hezbollah’s disarmament and ouster from a swath of south Lebanon.
“The Israeli enemy’s bombing of bridges and roads is aimed at tightening the blockade on the Lebanese, cutting communications between them and starving them,” Lahoud said.
He linked the new raids to Israel’s failure to win quick victory in the south, where Israeli soldiers have been mired in ground battles with Hezbollah guerrillas for several days.
An Israeli army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, said Israel targeted the bridges to stop the flow of weapons from Syria.
International aid agencies said Friday said the road bombing would slow down aid shipments to needy civilians in central Lebanon and the coastline around the capital, Beirut, where the bulk of the population lives.
Border crossings in the east have been shut by airstrikes. Israel has imposed a naval blockade and has hit the international airport to seal off Lebanon’s sea and airspace.
“This is Lebanon’s umbilical cord,” Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Program told The Associated Press. “This (road) has been the only way for us to bring in aid. We really need to find other ways to bring relief in.”
In the farm attack near al-Qaa, a town about six miles from a Hezbollah stronghold, Lebanese civil defense official Ali Yaghi said at least 28 people were killed.
Yaghi said at least 12 workers were wounded and some were likely buried under rubble. A bulldozer was brought to the site to try to uncover survivors, he said. The Israeli army said it had attacked two buildings where it suspected weapons were being stored, and it was checking reports that it had hit a vegetable storehouse and civilians.
In Israel, police said 120 rockets had fallen, including one that crashed into a house in the Israeli Arab town of Mughar, killing a woman. An Israeli man was killed near the border town of Kiryat Shemona.
Police commander Dan Ronen said 45 rockets had fallen within one half-hour period.
More than three weeks into the fighting, six Israeli brigades — or roughly 10,000 troops — were locked in battle with hundreds of Hezbollah guerrillas in about 20 towns and villages in south Lebanon.
Israeli artillery intensified bombing there overnight, sending as many as 15 shells per minute against suspected Hezbollah strongholds.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz has told top army officers to begin preparing for a push to the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border. That would require further approval by Israel’s Security Cabinet and could lead to far more casualties.
Hezbollah said in a statement broadcast by the group’s Al-Manar TV station that guerrillas had killed six Israeli soldiers near the villages of Aita al-Shaab and Markaba.
The Israeli army said two soldiers were killed and two wounded by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile during heavy fighting in a village where the militant group had been launching rockets.
Despite Israel’s efforts, Hezbollah launched at least 200 rockets into northern Israel on Thursday, in a new tactic of simultaneously firing a large number of rockets.
Hezbollah’s leader offered to stop attacking if Israel ends its airstrikes.
Israel’s United Nations ambassador, Dan Gillerman, said that Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s offer of a truce was “a sign of weakness … and he may be looking for a way out.”
Gillerman warned against a threat by Nasrallah to launch rockets on Israel’s commercial center, Tel Aviv.
“We are ready for it, and I am sure that he (Nasrallah), as well as his sponsors, realize the consequences of doing something as unimaginable and crazy as that,” the Israeli ambassador told CNN.
On the second front of its offensive against Islamic militants, Israel began pulling tanks out of southern Gaza after a two-day incursion that killed eleven Palestinians, including an 8-year-old boy.
The fighting in Gaza, which began June 25 after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, has killed a total of 175 Palestinians, the U.N. reported, adding that it was concerned that “with international attention focusing on Lebanon, the tragedy in Gaza is being forgotten.”
The offensive in Lebanon began after another cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerrillas who captured two Israeli soldiers.
According to an Associated Press count, at least 530 Lebanese have been killed, including 454 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry; 26 Lebanese soldiers; and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said that 1 million people — or about a quarter of Lebanon’s population — had fled the fighting.
Seventy-two Israelis have been killed — 43 soldiers and 29 civilians. More than 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north, Israeli officials said.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said the United States and France have “come a long way” in negotiating a Security Council resolution that calls for an immediate end to Middle East hostilities,said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed support Thursday for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon as the first phase in ending the conflict. It was the most concrete signal yet that the U.S. may be willing to compromise on the stalemate over how to end the fighting.
Israel, backed by the United States, has rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire, saying it wants an international force or the Lebanese army to deploy in southern Lebanon to prevent future Hezbollah attacks.