Israel triples troops as cease-fire deadline set

Published August 13, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israel tripled its ground forces in Lebanon on Saturday, engaging in some of the heaviest ground combat of the monthlong war just hours after the U.N. Security Council adopted a cease-fire plan.

The leader of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah grudgingly joined Lebanon's government in accepting the U.N. resolution 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 today, but there was no slowing in the bloodshed.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced early today that a cease-fire would take effect at 8 a.m. Beirut time Monday (1 a.m. EDT), saying both Israeli and Lebanese leaders agreed to the start time. In his statement, Annan called for an immediate halt to the fighting.

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 River, 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.

Israel said 19 of its soldiers were killed, its highest one-day toll of the fighting. Israel Radio reported 100 troops wounded, which if confirmed would also be the highest one-day toll for injuries.

Israel confirmed that guerrillas shot down a helicopter in the south and there were injuries. Only the five-man crew was aboard. Hezbollah said a battle raged for hours as Israel attempted to retrieve those on board.

Israel said it killed more than 40 Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah issued a statement saying three of its fighters had been killed but gave no date.

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.

"Today nothing has changed and it appears tomorrow nothing will change," Nasrallah said.

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 its reservations, and the Cabinet harshly condemned Israel's military push Saturday.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israeli troops would remain in Lebanon until the international force arrived, and would defend themselves if attacked.