The Israeli military suffered its deadliest day in a monthlong offensive in Lebanon on Saturday in the hours after the U.N. Security Council adopted a cease-fire plan that received tepid support from Israeli, Lebanese and Hezbollah leaders.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Israeli and Lebanese leaders had agreed to begin a “cessation of hostilities” at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT) Monday.
"Preferably, the fighting should stop now to respect the spirit and intent of the Council decision, the object of which was to save civilian lives, to spare the pain and suffering that the civilians on both sides are living through," Annan said.
The leader of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah grudgingly joined Lebanon’s government in accepting the U.N. resolution adopted Friday but vowed to keep fighting until Israeli troops leave and hand over territory to a muscular U.N. peacekeeping force intended to separate the antagonists.
Israel also signaled its intention to approve the plan, at a Cabinet meeting Sunday, and a senior official predicted fighting would stop Monday morning, but there was no slowing in the bloodshed.
Fierce fighting from both sides
Israel was determined to batter Hezbollah until the end, while the guerrillas seemed to be fighting as fiercely as ever after a month of intense Israeli air, artillery and ground assaults.
Nineteen Israeli soldiers were killed Saturday during an expanded offensive in Lebanon, the army said, making it the highest one-day toll for the Jewish state since the war against Hezbollah erupted.
The deaths, which occurred in several battles throughout the day, brought to more than 100 the number of Israeli troops killed so far.
In its statement Sunday, the military also said that a five member crew of a downed helicopter was missing and feared dead.
The soldiers were killed in battles as helicopters landed commandos near the Litani River and columns of armor and infantry pushed north to meet them.
Several soldiers died when they were hit by anti-tank missiles and others in fierce gunbattles with the guerillas. Two were killed when a tank accidentally ran over them, the army said, adding that more than 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed. Israel Radio reported that some 100 soldiers were injured in the clashes.
The transport helicopter was shot down by Hezbollah guerillas. Only the crew were on board at the time, the army said.
Nineteen Lebanese civilians died from Israeli airstrikes, while Hezbollah rockets wounded eight people in northern Israel. The 32-day struggle has claimed nearly 900 lives — including at least 763 in Lebanon and 130 in Israel.
The big expansion of Israel troop strength prompted Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, to declare the fight far from finished and likely to get worse.
“We must not make a mistake, not in the resistance, the government or the people, and believe that the war has ended. The war has not ended,” he said.
“Today nothing has changed and it appears tomorrow nothing will change,” Nasrallah added in his trademark measured tones.
Lebanon backs deal, with reservations
Speaking a few hours before Lebanon’s Cabinet voted unanimously to accept the U.N. plan, Nasrallah said Hezbollah would abide by the cease-fire resolution but continue fighting as long as Israeli troops remained in Lebanon, calling it “our natural right.”
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said his Cabinet endorsed the cease-fire plan despite having reservations. “We will deal with the requirements of the resolution with realism in a way that serves the national interest,” he said.
The Cabinet harshly condemned Israel’s military push Saturday, saying it presented a “flagrant challenge” to the international community after the U.N. resolution was issued.
A senior Israeli official said the cease-fire was expected to go into effect at 7 a.m. Monday — midnight Sunday EDT.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss sensitive issues publicly, said Israel wanted to seize control of the south so more Hezbollah fighters do not enter the zone before it is handed over to the Lebanese army and U.N. troops.
Israelis mount final push
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israeli troops would remain until the international force arrived, and would defend themselves if attacked.
“If anyone dares to use force against Israeli defense forces, we will see this as a violation of the cease-fire agreement,” he said on Israel television.
Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said ground forces had tripled in size in a bid to chase Hezbollah fighters and rocket crews north of the Litani, 18 miles north of the border. He did not give a specific figure, but a threefold increase would mean Israel had 30,000 soldiers inside Lebanon.
Lebanese security officials said Israel troops reached the Litani by helicopter at a point about six miles west of the northern tip of the Israeli panhandle that juts northward alongside southeastern Lebanon. The officials said the troops were near the village of Aalmane, which sits on high ground on the south side of the river.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said the commandos cleared the area ahead of the arrival of a column of Israeli armored vehicles.
The Israelis used more than 50 helicopters to ferry hundreds of commandos into Hezbollah territory in the largest such operation in the Middle East since the October 1973 war.
Call from Bush
President Bush had an eight-minute phone call Saturday with Saniora to discuss the U.N. resolution and efforts to end hostilities. The White House issued a statement declaring the administration was determined to vanquish the hold of Hezbollah — and that of its Syrian and Iranian benefactors — on the south.
“These steps are designed to stop Hezbollah from acting as a state within a state, and put an end to Iran and Syria’s efforts to hold the Lebanese people hostage to their own extremist agenda,” Bush said. “This in turn will help to restore the sovereignty of Lebanon’s democratic government and help ensure security for the people of Lebanon and Israel.”
Saniora, an anti-Syria politician whose government was extremely weak when the fighting began, appears to have emerged from the crisis considerably strengthened. He refused to give in to initial cease-fire proposals from the United States and France that would have left Israeli troops in place until an international force was installed.
He also prevailed in his insistence that policing of the cease-fire be done by Lebanese soldiers supported by a U.N. force rather than by an ad hoc assembly of international troops, possibly from NATO.
International force takes shape
The cease-fire, unanimously adopted by the U.N. Security Council on Friday night, calls for a contingent of as many as 30,000 soldiers — half U.N., half Lebanese — to enforce the truce.
French President Jacques Chirac said his nation was ready to contribute troops. Italy and the predominantly Muslim nations of Turkey and Malaysia also have offered soldiers.
Israeli police said 64 rockets fell on northern Israel, wounding eight people. That compared with an average 200 missiles daily for the last two weeks.
At least 19 Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli air raids Saturday. In the deadliest strike, Israeli missiles killed at least 15 civilians in the southern village of Rachaf, Lebanese security officials said.
Israeli warplanes also knocked out a highway in northern Lebanon leading to the Arida border crossing with Syria, the last official border post open for aid convoys and civilians fleeing the country. The only routes left were rugged footpaths and back roads through deserts or over mountains.
Aid convoys were stuck in ports or at warehouses because Israel refused to guarantee their safety on the roads. Thousands of people trapped in southern villages were believed to have run out of food and medicine and were drinking unsafe water.
New missile downed chopper
Hezbollah said, in a claim carried on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, that the Israeli military helicopter was brought down by a new missile, the “Waad” (Arabic for Promise) in the guerrilla arsenal. Israel’s Channel 10 TV reported the helicopter brought down by anti-tank missile.
It was Israel’s first loss of a helicopter in Lebanon in the monthlong conflict. Two helicopters collided and crashed and a third crashed separately in northern Israel early on in the fighting.
Hezbollah guerrillas have crippled an Israeli warship with a missile July 15.
The helicopter was shot down in the Maryamein valley near the village of Yater, and other helicopters scrambled to the area to try to rescue the crew.
Hezbollah reported a gunbattle raged as Israeli troops tried to retrieve the crew members from the downed chopper, according to a statement issued by the group.