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U.N. peacekeepers injured by Israeli airstrike

Two Indian soldiers with the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon were wounded by an Israeli air strike, a U.N. spokesman said. Meanwhile, airstrikes forced the closure of the main crossing between Lebanon and Syria for the first time.
/ Source: news services

Two Indian soldiers with the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon were wounded and their observation post damaged by an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, a U.N. spokesman said.

Milos Strugar, spokesman for the UNIFL force, said the two had been evacuated to a hospital. He said the observation post inside their position had been damaged.

Last week, an Israeli air raid killed four U.N. observers, an attack that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said was “apparently deliberate.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed his sorrow and ordered a probe but said the U.N. position was not targeted intentionally.

Syria-Lebanon crossing closed
Israeli missiles also struck near the main Lebanese border crossing into Syria on Saturday, forcing its closure for the first time in the 18-day-old conflict, police officials said.

Hezbollah fired more than 90 rockets from southern Lebanon into northern Israel, lightly wounding about a dozen people, the army and medics said. They have launched more than 1,500 rockets into Israel since the conflict started.

Israeli warplanes fired three missiles that landed at the Masnaa crossing, about 300 yards beyond a Lebanese customs post, the officials said. They said the area is considered to be part of Lebanese territory.

Security officials said there were no casualties from the strike, which damaged two cars. Police sealed off the area and prevented journalists from coming close.

The road between Syrian and Lebanese checkpoints was closed in both directions, they said.

It was the first time that the main crossing between Lebanon and Syria was shut in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas that began 18 days ago.

The passage has been an escape route for tens of thousands of Lebanese who fled by land to Syria, after Israel bombed the runways at Beirut airport in the first days of fighting. It was also a gateway for humanitarian aid entering the country.

Only the beginning, Hezbollah leader says
Hezbollah’s leader on Saturday threatened more attacks on central Israeli cities, a day after guerrillas for the first time fired a rocket powerful enough to reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, speaking on Hezbollah’s TV station, said he supported Lebanon’s efforts to negotiate a peace deal, but suggested tentative promises for the guerrillas to disarm would be off if conditions aren’t met.

Nasrallah also dismissed a new diplomatic effort by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bring about cease-fire, saying the United States wants fighting to continue. His statement came as Rice arrived in the Mideast to visit Israel; a possible Lebanon stop has not been announced.

The bearded Shiite Muslim cleric, wearing his trademark black headdress, insisted Hezbollah fighters were winning the battle with Israel, now in its 18th day. Israel has not made a “single military accomplishment” in its offensive on Lebanon, he said, speaking on the group’s Al-Manar television.

He claimed Israel suffered a “serious defeat” in ground fighting around a Lebanese border town after Israeli troops pulled back Saturday afternoon. Israel said they left Bint Jbail because they accomplished their mission of wearing down Hezbollah fighters after a week of heavy battles.

On Friday, a Hezbollah rocket hit outside the Israeli town of Afula, the farthest strike yet. Hezbollah said it targeted an Israeli military base, but the rockets fell in an empty field.

“The bombardment of Afula and its military base is the beginning ..., Nasrallah said. “Many cities in the center (of Israel) will be targeted in the ‘beyond Haifa’ stage if the savage aggression continues on our country, people and villages.”

Aid trickles in
Humanitarian aid continued to arrive by sea and by air, but was piling up. Because aid convoys fear Israeli bombardment, only a trickle has reached the war zone in south Lebanon, where tens of thousands of Lebanese are stranded with dwindling supplies of medicine, food, water and fuel.

Israeli strikes have come within hundreds of yards of the few truck convoys making their way south this week — though no trucks have been hit so far — said officials from the international Red Cross, U.N. and other agencies. Israel has promised safe passage for aid but on a convoy-by-convoy basis; often 72-hour notice is required, slowing the process, officials said.

Israel on Saturday rejected a U.N. request for a three-day cease-fire to get in supplies and allow civilians to leave the war zone.

Israel: 50 guerilla deaths this week
Israel radio cited an unnamed high-ranking officer as saying 50 guerrillas were killed in the week of fighting and hundreds wounded, most of them from a special Hezbollah unit. Hezbollah has acknowledge the deaths of only 35 fighters in the entire campaign.

The officer also said Israeli soldiers entered a Hezbollah headquarters in Bint Jbail on Friday and seized weapons, maps and communications equipment.

Whatever Israel’s intention, its pull back from the town could provide a propaganda boost for Hezbollah, whose radio and television have lauded guerrillas for their prowess and depicted them as slowing down the Israeli war machine.

Meanwhile, Israeli air raids destroyed the bridge over the Orontes river in the eastern Bekaa Valley and were targeting bridges in the south.

At least 458 Lebanese have been killed in the fighting, that broke out July 12 after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed one in a cross-border raid. The figure is based on a count Friday from the Health Ministry, based on the number of bodies in hospitals, plus Saturday’s deaths outside Natabiyeh and Ain Arab. Some estimates range as high as 600 dead.

Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died in fighting, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 19 civilians, the Israeli army said. Israeli troops have killed about 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, the army said, though Hezbollah has acknowledged only a handful of deaths.