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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israeli Army Takes Strategic Town

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israeli ground forces took control of a key southern Lebanese town and claimed strategic hilltop positions Thursday in a push to widen its hold on border areas before a possible drive deeper into the country.

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.

In Beirut, missiles from Israeli helicopter gunships blasted the top of a historical lighthouse in an apparent attempt to knock out a broadcast antenna for Lebanese state television.

Israel also extended its warnings to new areas of Lebanon. Leaflets signed by the "State of Israel" warned that trucks "of any kind" could face attack after 8 p.m. local time 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 move into Marjayoun -- a mostly Christian area about eight kilometers from the Israeli border -- gives Israel an important foothold. The town was used as the command center for the Israeli army and its allied Lebanese militia during an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000. The high ground around Marjayoun, including the village of Blatt, overlook the Litani River valley, one of the sites for the relentless Hezbollah rocket assault on northern Israel.

In Israel, Hezbollah rockets Thursday killed two Israeli Arabs, including an infant, medics said. Lebanese sources reported at least two civilian deaths.

The military gains in Lebanon, 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.

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 cease-fire plan.

The strike at the inoperative lighthouse, built early last century during French colonial rule, was the first in central Beirut since a warning Aug. 3 by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that such a move would bring retaliation against Tel Aviv.

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

Meanwhile, hospitals were running out of food, fuel and other supplies in southern Lebanon on Thursday and aid groups said the fighting and the ban on movement meant they could not reach thousands trapped in the area.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said that since an Israeli airstrike destroyed the last coastal river crossing for trucks to the south on Monday, aid agencies had been reduced to carrying supplies by hand over a log across the Litani River.

It said Israel's road curfew significantly undermined the chances of the tens of thousands of people still believed to be trapped in the region.

"The people in the south are afraid. They are terrified to move," Rowan Gillies, president of MSF International, said in Beirut. "To forbid all forms of movement, without distinction, will lead to even more civilian deaths and suffering."

(AP, Reuters)