Israel Masses Troops on Lebanon Border Amid Invasion Fears

Smoke billows from the southern village of Zrariyeh , near the coastal town of Tyre, Lebanon, after an Israeli warplane missile attack, Saturday July 22, 2006.

Israel massed thousands more reservists on the Lebanese border to mount incursions aimed at destroying Hezbollah positions, warning it would not rule out a full-scale invasion despite increasing calls for a ceasefire.
The New York Times reported the United States is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, citing unnamed officials.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Cairo the spiralling conflict could lead to the "destruction of the Lebanese state", while UN Secretary General  Kofi Annan warned that an Israeli invasion would see a dramatic escalation of Hezbollah attacks.

The UN Secretary General also said Saturday Syria and Iran should be involved in resolving the crisis.

Residents of Lebanon's south, terror-stricken and exhausted as Israel's air campaign entered its 11th day, waved white scarves as they streamed to safer havens further north after another Israeli warning to flee the frontier zone.

Despite criticism of US support for the bombardment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed her rejection of what she called the "false promise" of a ceasefire, but said she would travel to the region on Sunday in search of a long-term solution.

Israel said its aircraft had hit 150 targets inside Lebanon in the 24 hours to Saturday morning, including a dozen roads linking Lebanon to neighbouring Syria as well as suspected Hezbollah positions.

Lebanon has said its army is ready to go into battle if Israel invades, which would sharply raise the stakes in a conflict that in just 10 days has killed close to 340 people, mostly civilians, in Lebanon and displaced more than half a million.

"The Lebanese army will resist and defend the country and prove that it is an army worthy of respect," said Defence Minister Elias Murr, whose forces have so far stood on the sidelines of the conflict.

Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz had warned that Israel would launch a full-scale ground invasion "without thinking twice" if necessary to crush Hezbollah, which has long been a thorn in its side.

But British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who has drawn Arab criticism for failing to back UN calls for a ceasefire, warned Israel of the dangers of a full-scale invasion.

She told the Financial Times the "very dangerous situation" could be at a turning point where "a miscalculation, a mistake could have dramatic effects and that I find deeply alarming".

But an Israeli military spokesman said ground operations would be necessary to stop Hezbollah rocket fire on Israel, and that a major ground attack had not been ruled out.

Ground operations in Lebanon were "indispensable because the air force can not always destroy underground bunkers dug by Hezbollah, which has put in place an entire fortified network," military spokesman Captain Yaacov Dalal said.

Some 3,000 reservists had already been called up to "clean up the border zone on the Lebanese side by limited operations aiming to destroy Hezbollah's infrastructure," he added.

Israeli police and army said "a number" of rockets landed in northern Israel on Saturday without causing casualties, despite a direct hit on a home in Carmiel.

The Israeli military confirmed that ground forces had held positions in two villages in southern Lebanon for several days but a UN spokesman said it was "not a massive force" and that the Israelis withdrew from one of the villages just before midday. An Israeli spokesman confirmed the pull-out.

The talk of a ground offensive came despite a call from Mr.Annan on Thursday for an immediate ceasefire after the worst cross-border fighting in a quarter century that has also killed 33 Israelis.

On Friday, Mr.Annan lobbied on behalf of an international security force in the border region that Israel so far has refused to back.

"I think it's going to be a serious escalation" if Israel invades southern Lebanon, Annan told CNN television.

UN envoy Vijay Nambiar, just back from the region, gave a downbeat assessment to the UN Security Council of the chances for peace, saying there were "serious obstacles" to halting the fighting "in the immediate future".

In Cairo, Douste-Blazy warned that the escalating conflict could destroy Lebanon.

"We must note the severity of the situation... and call for humanitarian corridors, call for the immediate cessation of hostilities, find all the conditions for a ceasefire, if not, it will be the destruction of the Lebanese state," he told a joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Abul Gheit.

UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland was due in Beirut on Saturday and would also try to visit southern Lebanon to assess humanitarian needs and to launch an international appeal for aid.

Thousands of Lebanese, in cars, trucks and minibuses, are still fleeing southern Lebanon, where Israel's massive bombardment has left a trail of destruction and brought shortages of food and medicines.

Israel's air and sea blockade put Lebanon's only international airport out of action, bombed houses, roads, bridges, factories, warehouses and trucks, creating scenes reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war.

"The most basic human rights of the population are at risk or are being violated, including their rights to life, health and food," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said.

Olmert said he was willing to open a humanitarian corridor to ease the crisis.

With no sign the international community is closer to brokering a ceasefire, foreign governments continued to evacuate nationals by sea to nearby Cyprus or overland through Syria.

Britain urged all remaining nationals wanting to leave to gather at a Beirut assembly point on Saturday for its last evacuation ships out.

US marines were in the Lebanese capital for the first time in 22 years to help take American citizens to Cyprus which is being used as the main staging point for the massive evacuation operation.

The Mediterranean island is reeling from the influx, battling to find temporary accommodation and flights for the estimated 70,000 people expected to arrive from Lebanon at the height of the holiday season.

Israel is also continuing its air, sea and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip, where at least 106 people have been killed in two weeks.

The operation was launched with the aim of retrieving a soldier snatched by Palestinian militants and stopping rocket fire.

Source: AFP

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