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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israelis Consider Wider Attack

JERUSALEM -- Israel must unleash massive airstrikes against villages in south Lebanon to clear out Hezbollah gunmen, an Israeli Cabinet minister said Thursday, as the Israeli government weighed whether to broaden the military offensive against the Lebanese guerrillas.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, said al-Qaida now saw "all the world as a battlefield open in front of us," in a taped message broadcast by Al-Jazeera television.

Israel's call for greater firepower came as the country suffered its heaviest casualty toll in the 15-day campaign, with nine soldiers killed and 25 wounded in house-to-house fighting in Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon on Wednesday.

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

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

Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon, who is close to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Israel interpreted 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 is not 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."

Ramon also said the Israeli air force must bomb villages before ground forces entered, suggesting this would help prevent Israeli casualties in the future.

Asked whether entire villages should be flattened, he said: "These places are not villages. They are military bases in which Hezbollah people are hiding and from which they are operating."

However, it is believed civilians remain in these communities. A Red Cross doctor who visited the town of Bint Jbail, scene of the heaviest fighting, before the Israelis advanced on it, said that while the majority of residents had fled, a considerable number were taking cover in schools and other areas.

Zawahru, second in command to Osama bin Laden, warned that al-Qaida would not stand idly by while "these [Israeli] shells burn our brothers" in Lebanon and Gaza.

"The shells and rockets ripping apart Muslim bodies in Gaza and Lebanon are not only Israeli [weapons], but are supplied by all the countries of the crusader coalition. Therefore, every participant in the crime will pay the price," Zawahri said. Egyptian-born Zawahri said the Hezbollah and Palestinian fighting against Israel would not be ended with "cease-fires or agreements."

"The war with Israel does not depend on cease-fires. ... It is a Jihad for the sake of God and will last until [our] religion prevails ... from Spain to Iraq," Zawahri said. "We will attack everywhere."

A picture of the burning World Trade Center was on the wall behind him along with photos of two other militants. One appeared to be a bearded Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The other was Mohammed Atef, also known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, a former top lieutenant of bin Laden who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001.

Al-Qaida broadcasts are thought to contain coded messages to members.

Israel's offensive has killed 423 people in Lebanon since July 12. It was launched after Hezbollah attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two. Fifty-two Israelis have been killed in the fighting, including 34 soldiers.

The growing Israeli casualty toll was accompanied by criticism of the military operation. Some politicians warned that Israel could get dragged into a long offensive in Lebanon. Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year occupation of the area.