Israel: government puts on hold ground offensive

The offensive on Marjayoun and nearby areas coincided with a decision by Israel to hold off on a planned major thrust to give diplomacy more time.

Leaflets signed by the "State of Israel" warned that trucks "of any kind" could face attack after 8 p.m. along the northern coast road linking Lebanon to Syria. The notice said vehicles would be "suspected of carrying rockets, military hardware and saboteurs."

A similar round-the-clock road curfew has been in force across southern Lebanon since early Tuesday.

The military gains, however, did not amount to a critical battlefield loss for Hezbollah. The Islamic guerrillas have little support in the Marjayoun area and Israeli forces came under heavy attack before reaching the town.

Hezbollah said it destroyed 13 Israeli tanks, including at least seven during fierce fighting on a critical travel route called the Khiam plain. Israel says Hezbollah has used the flatland for its rocket barrages on the Israel town of Kiryat Shemona. Israel did not immediately announce on possible tank losses or casualties.

The fighting came just hours before a senior Israeli official, Rafi Eitan, announced that a planned expansion of the ground offensive would be delayed to give diplomats at the United Nations more room to seek a cease-fire deal. Lebanon and its Arab allies demand that Israel withdraw it forces as a precondition to any plan, the AP reports.

Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes on Thursday pounded a strip of the coastal highway junction for roads connecting three major southern cities.

In the coastal city of Tyre, civil defense officials say a motorcyclist was killed by an Israeli rocket. In the eastern Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold, an Israeli drone fired a missile into a minibus, killing one person and wounding 12, residents said.

Thursday's operations came shortly after Israel's Security Cabinet decided to expand the ground offensive and thrust toward the Litani river valley.

The Israeli military's planned broader offensive appeared to be a gambit aimed at trying to cripple Hezbollah's fighting capabilities before a possible cease-fire, which could include Lebanese and U.N.-backed forces creating a buffer zone across southern Lebanon.