Israeli air forses attack army base north of Beirut

IThe airstrikes also hit a Lebanese army base and a radio relay station and destroyed several roads. The series of raids in northern, eastern and southern Lebanon, which killed at least one person and wounded others, came as the Israeli government was to meet Thursday to decide whether to broaden the military offensive, now in its third week, against Hezbollah guerrillas.

On Wednesday, a high-level Mideast conference in Rome ended in disagreement, with most European leaders urging an immediate cease-fire, but the U.S. willing to give Israel more time to punish the guerrilla group.

Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who is close to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel interprets this as a green light to continue its offensive. "We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world .... to continue the operation, this war, until Hezbollah won't be located in Lebanon and until it is disarmed," he told Israel Army Radio. "Everyone understands that a victory for Hezbollah is a victory for world terror."

The call for greater firepower came as Israel suffered its heaviest casualty toll in a single battle in the 16-day campaign, with nine soldiers killed and 25 wounded in house-to-house fighting in Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon on Wednesday.

The crisis began July 12 when Hezbollah fighters staged a cross-border attack that led to the deaths of eight Israeli soldiers and left two captured.

Israeli army commanders have said troops would seize additional towns and villages in south Lebanon to force out Hezbollah gunmen.

In the first apparent ramification of the killing of four U.N. observers by an Israeli airstrike earlier this week, Australia decided to withdraw 12 unarmed logistics specialists who had been sent to southern Lebanon to help with evacuation efforts. It also said it would not support a new international force in southern Lebanon unless it had the strength and will to disarm Hezbollah, Prime Minister John Howard said Thursday.

Earlier this month, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson backed participation of Australian troops in a new U.N. Middle East peacekeeping mission, but on Thursday, he seemed to rule out any major contribution.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally in the war on terror, has troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Israeli warplanes struck a road in Rayak, a few kilometers (miles) from the Lebanese-Syrian border early Thursday, wounding two soldiers and a civilian, Lebanese officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make statements to the media.

The airstrikes, which targeted mostly deserted houses allegedly belonging to Hezbollah activists, and roads linking villages in the region, caused a number of casualties, the officials said. Ambulances and civil defense crews were unable to reach the targeted areas because of intense bombardment, witnesses said.

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