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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 August 2006, 19:19 GMT 20:19 UK
Israel steps up ground offensive
Israeli soldier

Heavy clashes have been taking place in southern Lebanon between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters, after Israel vowed to widen its ground offensive.

Both sides claim to have caused casualties, as Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded Hezbollah targets amid fierce resistance.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said troops were operating in several locations, kilometres from Israel's border.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said Israel was "winning" the battle against Hezbollah.

In the latest fighting, a mother and her two daughters were killed in an Israeli air strike on the southern town of Lweizeh, Lebanese security officials said.

And Israel announced that three soldiers had been killed when an anti-tank missile hit the house they were in, in the town of Ait al-Shaab.

After nearly three weeks of fighting, about 750 people - mainly civilians - have been killed by Israeli action in Lebanon, according to Lebanon's health minister.

A total of 54 Israelis, including at least 18 civilians, are known to have been killed by Hezbollah.

Eliminating 'threat'

Speaking at Glilot near Tel Aviv, Mr Olmert said a political process was under way "that in the end will bring a ceasefire under entirely different conditions than before".

He said Israel would not eliminate all of Hezbollah's missiles.

But he said: "This threat will not be what it was. Never will they be able to threaten this people they fired missiles at."

Israeli views on their army's offensive in southern Lebanon

European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels meanwhile have called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Lebanon, to be followed by a ceasefire.

The BBC's Alix Kroeger, who was at the conference, says the distinction is small but crucial.

The cessation of hostilities should, the ministers said, be followed by a sustainable ceasefire. That, in turn, would pave the way for a political accord and eventually the deployment of a multi-national force, our correspondent says.

In other developments:

  • Senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati called on Muslim countries to send weapons to Hezbollah to fight Israel

  • Two Belgian military planes carrying aid were not allowed to land in Beirut after Israel said it could not guarantee their safety, Belgium's defence ministry said

  • French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy met his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki at Iran's embassy in Beirut

'Two more weeks'

Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli Army Radio it would take the army 10 days to two weeks "to complete the job, and by that I mean that the area in which we want [an] international force to deploy is cleansed of Hezbollah".

The Israeli security cabinet on Tuesday unanimously approved widening Israel's ground offensive in Lebanon, although it is not yet clear what the scope of the incursion will be.

Map

Israeli media said a decision had been taken to push militants back to the Litani River, up to 30km (18 miles) north of the border.

The Israeli army has been urging residents of villages north of the river to leave ahead of an impending military offensive. Some of the fiercest exchanges of fire are reported to have taken place around the central border village of Ait al-Shaab.

Hezbollah's al-Manar television said fighters had surrounded Israeli forces in the village, preventing them from evacuating their wounded.

As well as the three deaths, the Israeli army said 25 soldiers had been slightly injured in the fighting.

The Israelis say that they "hit dozens of Hezbollah gunmen" but could not give more details.

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Fighting is also reported to have flared around the former Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, from where Israeli troops withdrew last week, and Kfar Kila, about 2km from the Israeli border.

Hezbollah said four of its fighters died in battles in Kfar Kila, Adiasse and Taibe.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said troops had killed 20 Hezbollah militants - a claim the group denied.

The Israeli army says Hezbollah fired several mortar shells at northern Israel on Tuesday, but no rockets since the previous night.

Israeli ministers said between 300 and 400 Hezbollah militants had died, while Hezbollah put the figure at 43, Reuters news agency reported.




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