BEIRUT (Reuters) – Air strikes and ground fighting convulsed south Lebanon on Tuesday ahead of fresh diplomatic negotiations aimed at ending a four-week-old war which has killed more than 1,000 people.
Despite global alarm at the rising civilian casualties, days of intensive efforts at the U.N. Security Council to bring about a ceasefire and lasting peace have proved difficult.
Israel has vowed to expand its military offensive against Hizbollah guerrillas if no diplomatic solution emerges soon.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he hoped a U.N. ceasefire resolution could be clinched on Wednesday, but told Sky News it would not include a demand for an Israeli pullout as Lebanon wants.
“I think the important thing is that once the resolution is agreed, and that calls for a cessation of hostilities, you are then able to get the second resolution, which is the one that will have the multinational force coming in and the Israeli troops withdrawing,” said Blair, whose position has mirrored that of the United States since the conflict began.
President Bush has said an immediate Israeli pullout could create a vacuum and allow Hizbollah guerrillas, backed by Syria and Iran, to rearm.
Lebanon says it will send 15,000 troops to the south when Israel withdraws. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Beirut’s plan was an “interesting step” which he would study.
“The faster we can leave south Lebanon, the happier we will be,” he said.
But he added that his security cabinet would discuss on Wednesday a possible expansion of military operations in Lebanon, where 10,000 Israeli troops are already on the ground.
Israel has insisted its troops will stay in Lebanon until a robust international force deploys to keep Hizbollah at bay.
Israel’s efforts to push Hizbollah back from the border and stop rocket fire into Israel have met stiff resistance. Anti-tank missiles killed a soldier and wounded five near the town of Bint Jbeil, the Israeli army said.
Hizbollah said its fighters had destroyed an Israeli tank on the outskirts of the village of Ainata, causing casualties.
Repeated air strikes and hundreds of artillery shells hit the southern town of Khiam on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said.
An air strike destroyed a three-storey school building in the village of Maaroub, 15 km (9 miles) east of the southern city of Tyre. Khalil Moussa, the school’s janitor, told Reuters his wife, three children and a teacher were under the rubble.
“I couldn’t do anything to help them,” he wept. “They might be still alive. We have to remove the rubble quickly.”
Israeli air raids killed more than 50 people on Monday, including at least 13 confirmed dead in an air strike on a southern Beirut suburb. Police said the death toll, which they had earlier put at 18, might rise as more rubble was removed.
At least 961 people have been killed in Lebanon in the conflict, with dozens more still missing and presumed dead.
Ninety-eight Israelis have been killed since Hizbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 touched off the war.
France and the United States had drafted a U.N. resolution to bring an end to the fighting but are now considering changes to overcome Arab criticism that it favors Israel.
No vote is expected until Wednesday or Thursday while diplomats adjust the draft and hear an afternoon presentation from Arab foreign ministers.
“It is obvious to us that a draft that is not favorable to the Lebanese side should not be adopted,” Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the Rossiya television station.
France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere and U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said they would not introduce a final draft before the Arab League envoys spoke.
The existing draft would allow Israeli soldiers to stay in the south until an international force deploys. It calls for a “full cessation of hostilities” and says Hizbollah must stop all attacks while Israel must halt “offensive military operations.”
Lebanon also wants to recover the Shebaa Farms, a tiny patch of land occupied by Israel since 1967. The United Nations says the 10-square-mile (25-sq-km) area belongs to Syria. Lebanon and Syria say it is Lebanese, but have not demarcated the border.