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Israel Pounds Southern Lebanon

Israeli warplanes fired missiles at dozens of targets across southern Lebanon overnight Friday, including buildings that were reduced to rubble and a Hezbollah base where long-range rockets were stored, the military said.

Israeli officials say that base was the center responsible for launching the rockets that have terrorized Haifa day after day, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi.

The Israeli army also says ground forces are continuing to tighten their grip on the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbail, where there is fierce resistance from an estimate 100 armed guerrillas, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger on the border. Although reservists have been called up, the reinforcements have not yet arrived.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has decided to remove unarmed observers from their posts along the Israeli-Lebanese border, moving them in with the peacekeeping force in the area, a spokesman said Friday.

The decision came after one of the posts of the observer force, known as UNTSO, was destroyed by an Israeli air strike earlier this week, killing four.

"These are unarmed people and this is for their protection," said Milos Struger, a spokesman for UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force whose 2,000 members have light weapons for self-defense.

In other developments:

  • In Malaysia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she will return to the Middle East to meet with Israeli officials to try to bring an end to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, which has entered its third week. Rice didn't say when she would return, reports Alfonsi.
  • A number of nations were pressing for a United Nations resolution that will call for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, including France, the European Union, and Arab countries. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was headed to Washington where he would discuss a U.N. resolution with President Bush. He's under pressure at home to also endorse an immediate cease-fire.
  • Israeli troops withdrew from northern Gaza early Friday after a bloody two-day sweep that killed 29 Palestinians, the deadliest violence since Israel's incursion began more than a month ago.
  • Israeli police used stun grenades to disperse hundreds of Arab youths who were trying to gain access to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for Friday prayers, police said. No injuries were reported. Al Aqsa is built atop a compound that is a sacred site for both Muslims and Jews. When tensions are running high, Israeli authorities often limit entrance to the compound to Muslims who are 45 or older.
  • Iran's foreign ministry on Friday denied allegations that Tehran has provided military support to Hezbollah in its fight against Israel, a day after President Bush sharply criticized Iran's role in the bloody fighting. "Our support has been spiritual. If we had military support, we would announce it. ... We don't have any hidden business," ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on state-run television.

    Israeli defense forces said aircraft hit a total of 130 targets in Lebanon on Thursday and early Friday, including a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley, where long-range rockets were stored, and 57 Hezbollah structures, six missile launching sites and six communication facilities.

    Israeli jets fired missiles at a three-story building near the southern Lebanon market town of Nabatiyeh, destroying the building and killing a Jordanian man who was hit by shrapnel in a nearby home, Lebanese security officials.

    The building housed a construction company believed to be owned by a Hezbollah activist, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media. The strike also wounded four children nearby, they said.

    Israel also destroyed two buildings in the village of Kfar Jouz near Nabatiyeh, and civil defense teams were struggling to rescue people believed buried in the rubble, witnesses said.

    Warplanes pounded roads in southeastern Lebanon, a Lebanese army checkpoint in Ansar village and a castle in Arnoun village near the Lebanon-Israel border. In addition, Israeli jets fired more than 30 missiles at suspected Hezbollah hideouts in hills and mountainous areas in the southern part of the country, security officials said.

  • Meanwhile, the guerrillas continued to launch rockets into northern Israel on Friday, with 10 fired at the towns of Ma'alot, Karmiel and Safed by midmorning, the army said. Two children were lightly wounded by shrapnel when a rocket landed next to their kindergarten.

    Although many of the rockets fall in unoccupied areas in northern Israel, more 3,700 acres of nature reserves and 1500 acres of forests have been burned since fighting began, reports the Israeli news site Ynet. "It will take the north tens of years to bounce back and be a green pearl," Jewish National Fund manager Michael Weinberger said.

    At least 438 people have been reported killed in Lebanon since fighting broke out between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas, most of them Lebanese civilians. But Lebanon's health minister estimated Thursday that as many as 600 civilians have been killed so far in the offensive.

    Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting and 19 civilians have been killed in Hezbollah's unyielding rocket attacks on Israel's northern towns, the army said.

    The army said Friday that Israeli troops have killed about 200 Hezbollah guerrillas since fighting began more than two weeks ago. Hezbollah has reported far fewer casualties.

    Israel launched its offensive in Lebanon on July 12, after Hezbollah guerrillas overran the border, killing eight soldiers and capturing two others. Israeli forces opened an earlier offensive in the Gaza Strip on June 28, three days after Hamas militants attacked Israeli army post in southern Israeli, killing two soldiers and capturing another one.

    Hezbollah and Hamas have both demanded the release of Hezbollah and Palestinian prisoners in return for freedom for the three Israeli captives, but Israel's government has refused.

    Israel decided on Thursday not to expand its ground battle with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon for now, but the Cabinet authorized the army to call up 30,000 reserve soldiers in case the fighting intensified.

    Rice, who was attending a regional security conference in Malaysia on Friday, had said earlier that she was "willing and ready" to return to the region to work for a sustainable peace agreement.

    "I do think it is important that groundwork be laid so I can make the most of whatever time I can spend there," she said at a news conference Friday.

    Israel radio and the Haaretz newspaper reported that Rice will fly to Israel on Saturday night to discuss the Mideast crisis. Haaretz said she plans to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday. Israel's foreign ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment.

    The United States, adopting a diplomatic stance that has not been embraced by allies, has been insisting that any cease-fire to the violence must come with conditions. Otherwise, Rice and other U.S. officials have said repeatedly, they fear just a repetition of the on-again, off-again violence of recent years.