MARJAYOUN, Lebanon, AP – Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded Hezbollah positions Friday in an attempt to gain command of strategic high ground and disrupt guerrilla rocket attacks across. In far north Lebanon, Israeli jets blasted a key bridge to Syria, killing at least 12 people.
The conflict for the first time touched the entire length of Lebanon — from skirmishes on the Israeli border in the south to the northern border about 100 miles away — and sent the message that no place was safe from the widening Israeli attacks.
But Hezbollah delivered a similar statement to northern Israel with another barrage of more than 150 rockets, it said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
U.N. diplomats held out hope that an end could be in sight. Negotiators reported progress on a cease-fire plan that has been stuck over a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal. America’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, said a vote was possible Friday.
Israel has delayed a major new ground offensive to give diplomacy some room. But officials warned that they would unleash the fresh infantry forces if the talks fail.
The most severe fighting continued around Marjayoun, an important hub just north of Israel’s Galilee panhandle that juts into Lebanon. An Associated Press reporter briefly entered the embattled city and witnessed intense Israeli bombardment of dug-in Hezbollah fighters.
The city, which is mostly Christian, is crucial because it gives Israeli gunners a view of the Litani River Valley and other areas used as launching grounds for Hezbollah rockets. Israeli tanks rolled into Marjayoun on Thursday after coming under sustained Hezbollah ambushes along the way.
Lebanese Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat told The Associated Press Thursday the Lebanese soldiers and police garrisoned in the town were taken into custody.
But an Israel military spokeswoman said the people left in the city — soldiers, police and refugees — were only advised to remain there for their own safety.
“Nobody has been taken prisoner,” she said, declining to be identified because military rules did not allow her to make public comments.
U.N. peacekeepers arrived Friday to evacuate about 350 Lebanese soldiers and police Marjayoun, but they delayed any attempt to leave because of the fighting.
By taking Marjayoun, the Israeli army was closer to Beirut than at any time since the fighting began July 12 after a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three. On Thursday, an Israeli helicopter gunship struck a century-old lighthouse in central Beirut in an apparent attempt to knock out a TV antenna.
Powerful explosions also resounded across Beirut early Friday, and local media reports said Israeli jets were pounding Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Dahieh suburb. Reports said a bridge was also hit in Akkar province, 60 miles north of Beirut. There was no immediate word of casualties.
At the same time, Israeli forces were still locked in relentless combat with guerrillas along the border. Hezbollah reported Israeli casualties near the southern village of Rachaf, but gave no further details. Israel did not immediately release information.
In northern Lebanon, Israel jets attacked the Abboudiyeh border crossing into Syria, killing at least 12 people, security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Now, only one official border crossing to Syria is open for those trying to flee Lebanon.
At the United Nations, the United States and France have been trying to bridge differences over a timetable for an Israeli pullout.
Russia, increasingly impatient that diplomacy has taken so long, pushed for a temporary cease-fire in its own Security Council draft resolution introduced Thursday that would call for a blanket 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire.
Lebanon has called for Israeli troops to start pulling out once hostilities end and Beirut sends 15,000 troops of its own 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,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John 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,” Israeli member of parliament Otniel Schneller quoted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying. “But if the draft is not accepted, there is the Cabinet decision.”
The Israeli Security Cabinet authorized Olmert to expand the current 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,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said.
But he warned Israel was ready to use “all of the tools” to cripple Hezbollah if efforts toward a cease-fire failed.
More than 800 people in Lebanon and Israel have died since fighting erupted — 727 on the Lebanese side and 122 on the Israeli side.