EU denies giving ‘green light’ to Israel

The European Union said it did not give Israel the green light to continue its offensive against Hizbollah in Lebanon as air strikes were stepped up across the country on Thursday.

An Israeli cabinet meeting decided against a big invasion but did call up at least 30,000 troops, the day after nine soldiers were killed in the heaviest loss in a single battle during the offensive.

Any deployment of the new troops would need cabinet approval, which was seen as a move towards reassuring Syria that Israel was not planning hostilities against Damascus.

Haim Ramon, the justice minister, said Israel viewed divisions among world leaders meeting in Rome on Wednesday as “permission” to continue operations.

But Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said Israel’s interpretation was “totally wrong”. Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister, said: “The position expressed by the conference cannot be interpreted as an authorisation.”

The conference, which brought together the US with European and Arab governments, failed to produce a call for an immediate ceasefire. Delegates said that virtually all countries had sought a quick end to hostilities but were forced to agree to a milder statement by the US.

Washington says it wants to work for a “durable” and “sustainable” ceasefire, an attitude European diplomats say is aimed at giving Israel more time to weaken Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia Islamist group. The offensive has failed to stop Hizbollah rocket attacks, 151 of which were launched into northern Israel on Thursday.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, also spoke out against Israel’s interpretation that it could continue the fighting. “I would say just the opposite,” said Mr Steinmeier. “In Rome, it was clear that everyone present wanted to see an end to the fighting as swiftly as possible.”

The army warned people in southern Lebanon on Thursday their villages would be “totally destroyed” if missiles were fired from them.

At least 424 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly civilians. Fifty-two Israelis have been killed, including 33 soldiers and 19 civilians, according to the military.

Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, told the cabinet the offensive’s goals were being met with air strikes and limited incursions. However, senior military officials were reporting to be pushing for a wider campaign to neutralise Hizbollah.

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