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Israeli ministers approve expanded Lebanon offensive

Written by: Staff
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JERUSALEM, Aug 9 (Reuters) Israel's security cabinet today ordered an expanded ground offensive in Lebanon aimed at striking a harder blow against Hizbollah and curbing its cross-border rocket attacks, the prime minister's office said.

The decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and top ministers to send troops deeper into Lebanon, possibly as far as the Litani river, up to 20 km north of the border, would bring a major escalation despite UN diplomacy to end the war.

''The security cabinet approved the recommendations of the defence establishment for the continuation of operations in Lebanon,'' the statement said.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz had recommended a deeper thrust into Lebanon despite what media reports said were Olmert's fears of heavy Israeli casualties in such a large-scale operation. Nine ministers approved the decision. Three abstained.

Israel already has about 10,000 troops in southern Lebanon, and it was not immediately clear how many more would be deployed in the widened military campaign. Olmert's office said further details would be released in a separate statement.

About 1,000 Lebanese and more than 100 Israelis have been killed in fighting that has raged since Hizbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.

A deeper advance into Lebanon could meet even stiffer Hizbollah resistance than Israel's army has already faced in its efforts to quell rocket fire that has rained on northern Israeli towns and villages.

But Israel seemed willing to absorb higher casualties to inflict heavier damage on Hizbollah while also stepping up pressure for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict on terms that suit Israel and its chief ally, the United States.

The Lebanese government has said it will send 15,000 troops to the south but only if Israel withdraws. Israel has vowed to pull its troops out only when an international force and the Lebanese army take over to keep Hizbollah at bay.

Diplomatic wrangling was expected to delay any vote until at least Thursday on a UN resolution to end hostilities.

REUTERS DKS BD1908

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