Israel pauses to give diplomacy a chanceBEIRUT Israeli troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, took the key south Lebanon town of Marjayoun early Thursday just hours before a senior Israeli official announced that the military would hold off expanding its ground offensive to give diplomacy a chance.
Cabinet minister Rafi Eitan confirmed Thursday the government's decision to wait after Israel's Security Cabinet on Wednesday approved the deeper push into Lebanon.
Israel's capture of Marjayoun and advances on nearby towns appeared to underline that it was continuing its operations to strengthen its position in the border areas even though it was not broadening its offensive.
Some 10,000 troops have been operating within a six-kilometer-deep border strip in southern Lebanon.
By establishing positions at the northern entrances of Marjayoun about nine kilometers from the border, Israel takes its ground operations deeper into south Lebanon than before, although only by a few kilometers.
The troops met no resistance as they pushed their way into the Christian town, residents said. Later, Israeli troops warned the residents of Marjayoun and the nearby town of Qleia through loud speakers to stay in their homes.
After taking Marjayoun, Israeli soldiers moved to the nearby village of Blatt where they took up positions on a strategic hill overlooking the Litani River valley, witnesses said.
Marjayoun, Blatt and the nearby village of Bourj al-Mulouk are key locations because they overlook the Litani River valley from which Hezbollah guerrillas fire their rockets into northern Israel.
Residents also said that Israeli troops had entered the Lebanese border town of Khiam.
Hezbollah said Thursday that its guerrillas were engaged in "a violent confrontation" with Israeli forces whose tanks tried to advance toward Khiam, the group's Al-Manar television reported.
Israel Army Radio reported heavy battles in south Lebanese villages across from Israel's Galilee panhandle, hard hit by rockets.
The Israeli army said it was conducting an operation against Katyusha rocket launchers in Khiam, which have been firing barrages at the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona.
The push toward Marjayoun came hours after a column of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles crossed into southern Lebanon Wednesday evening from the Israeli town of Metulla, invading under covering artillery fire and airstrikes, witnesses in the nearby village of Bourj al-Mulouk said.
Since Israel launched its military offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas on July 12, fierce fighting has raged between Israeli troops and the guerrillas in Lebanese border towns.
The operation on Thursday came shortly after Israel's security cabinet decided to expand the ground offensive and thrust toward the Litani River, which is down a valley only about six kilometers from the border in that area. Along the coast, however, the Litani is about 30 kilometers north of the Israeli border.
The Israeli military's planned broader offensive appeared to be a gambit aimed at bringing Hezbollah to its knees before the international community imposed a cease-fire in the month-old conflict.
The Israeli cabinet minister said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put the new military campaign in Lebanon on hold to give another chance to diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire.
"There are diplomatic considerations. There is still a chance that an international force will arrive in the area. We have no interest in being in south Lebanon. We have an interest in peace on our borders," Eitan told Israel Radio.
More than 800 people in Lebanon and Israel have died since fighting erupted.