BEIRUT (AFP) – Israel has launched fresh air strikes on Beirut after a lull of several days, as the world’s Muslim nations expressed outrage at international “double standards” over the three-week-old offensive.
Premier Ehud Olmert reiterated in newspaper interviews that Israel would not halt its drive against Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon until an international force of some 15,000 combat-ready troops was deployed there.
The difficulty of assembling such a force was highlighted when the United Nations postponed for the second time a meeting of countries that might contribute troops.
Explosions lit up the night sky over the Lebanese capital as aircraft circled overhead, the first such strikes on the battered city since Israel declared a partial bombing lull on Sunday.
No details of casualties were immediately available, but southern suburbs of Beirut, considered a stronghold of the Hezbollah Shiite militia, have been largely reduced to rubble after heavy previous attacks.
Israeli jets also struck the northern region of Akkar, near the Syrian border, the second attack there in 24 hours after two bridges were hit early Wednesday, Lebanese police said.
During the night, seven civilians, including an 80-year-old couple, were killed in intense air, sea and ground bombardment of the Tyre region in south Lebanon, police said.
The fresh air strikes came after Hezbollah fired its biggest salvo of rockets at Israel on Wednesday, in apparent retaliation for an Israeli commando operation in which five suspected guerrillas were snatched from a hospital.
One Israeli was killed in the barrage of 230 rockets, the heaviest in 23 days of fighting sparked by Hezbollah’s July 12 attack inside Israel in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two abducted.
A missile also hit near Beit Shean, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of the Lebanese border in the militia’s deepest strike yet into Israel.
The barrage came as a blow to Israeli claims to have significantly reduced Hezbollah’s ability to launch rockets, the main objective of the Jewish state’s war in southern Lebanon, but only 19 rockets were fired Thursday morning.
It came hours after Israeli special forces descended by helicopter early Wednesday onto Baalbek, 100 kilometres north of Israel, and attacked a hospital said by Israel to be a Hezbollah stronghold.
A military source told AFP that, for the first time, Hezbollah fired a Syrian-made Fajer-5 missile, with a longer range and larger warhead, hitting the northern town of Rosh Pina but causing no injuries.
The militia has fired more than 2,000 rockets at northern Israel since the start of the offensive on July 12, killing 19 civilians, while more than 800 people, mostly civilians, have been killed by Israeli strikes on Lebanon.
Israel had called a 48-hour partial halt to air attacks after it raided the Lebanese village of Qana Sunday. Reports that 52 civilians had been killed, mostly women and children, fueled worldwide calls for an immediate ceasefire.
On Thursday, however, Lebanese officials reduced the Qana toll to 28 dead, including 16 children.
An Israeli army probe of the incident claimed Thursday the military did not know there were civilians in the building and would not have attacked if they had.
On the ground, Israel pressed its advance deeper inside Lebanese territory in the teeth of stiff resistance from Hezbollah gunmen.
One Israeli soldier was killed and four others were wounded during clashes with Hezbollah guerrillas in the flashpoint village of Aita-ash Shaab in southern Lebanon, the army said Thursday.
A total of 37 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the start of the offensive. Israel claims to have killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters but the militia says its losses are much lower.
Crack Israeli infantrymen, paratroopers and reserve units have poured into southern Lebanon since the Israeli cabinet on Tuesday approved the expansion of the ground war, ignoring worldwide pleas for a ceasefire.
Israeli public radio said Thursday nearly 10,000 troops were battling Hezbollah fighters around a dozen villages.
Olmert told British newspapers the ground offensive would not stop until an international force of some 15,000 combat ready troops was deployed in southern Lebanon with a view to disarming Hezbollah.
“There should be overlap in terms of time so that we will pull out and they will come in without a time gap that will allow Hezbollah to rebuild their position in the south of Lebanon,” he told The Times.
“It’s as simple as that. We want a ceasefire and we don’t want to occupy the south of Lebanon.”
In a sign of progress toward a ceasefire, the permanent UN Security Council members embarked on intense talks on the conflict and ambassadors said a resolution setting out a possible settlement was close.
French Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said Wednesday a UN accord was now within reach.
“We are working very well. We are getting closer, much closer,” he said, although ambassadors said there was still no agreement on how many resolutions were needed or on the makeup of any international force.
British Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry said “a text which actually takes us forward” could be discussed in the Security Council as early as Friday.
But differences between France and the United States forced the United Nations to again postpone a planned meeting Thursday of potential contributors to an international force.
The UN failure to act drew the ire of Muslim nations, whose leaders were holding an emergency meeting in Malaysia to discuss how to deal with the conflict.
The “Islamic Ummah (community) is outraged,” said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Turkish head of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), as he opened the meeting attended by 17 countries, including Iran.
“They are perplexed in the face of gross double standards applied by the international community,” he said.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the failure to rein in Israel could prove catastrophic.
“The failure of the international community, especially the United Nations and the major powers to halt this outrage, is adding to popular anger in the region and around the world,” he said.
“This paralysis is dangerous and can have incalculable consequences for long-term peace and security in the sensitive Middle East region and in the world.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the current OIC chair, said the Muslim world had to commit troops to a proposed peacekeeping force, and volunteered Malaysian soldiers.
“We cannot continue issuing mere statements of condemnation for the violence,” Abdullah said.
Some 835 Lebanese have been killed and 3,210 wounded in the Israeli response to that attack, according to official figures. Hundreds of thousands more have been forced to flee their homes.
Lebanese officials estimate that Israeli bombardments have caused losses of 2.5 billion dollars.