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Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Israel Defense Forces officials on Thursday evening to begin preparing for the next stage of the military offensive in south Lebanon, which would extend the IDF's control to all Lebanese territory south of the Litani River.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, is said to be reluctant about expanding Israel's ground operation. While Peretz believes that the short-range rocket threat posed by Hezbollah can be neutralized by taking the area up to the Litani, Olmert feels that such a move would not be able to counter the longer-range missile threat posed by the Shi'ite organization.

The directive issued by Peretz was made in the wake of Hezbollah rocket attacks that killed eight people in northern Israel on Thursday, officials said. Also Thursday, four IDF soldiers were killed in combat with Hezbollah.

The expansion, which would include occupying the port city of Tyre, still requires the approval of the security cabinet, and could mean a further call-up of reservist soldiers.

Such an operation would extend Israel's control past the security zone it held until the withdrawal of its troops in May 2000. For now, the cabinet has approved the creation of a buffer zone some eight kilometers inside Lebanon which Olmert wants the military to control until an international peacekeeping force can be deployed in the area.

The IDF is planning a new defensive line in southern Lebanon that will be six to eight kilometers north of the Israeli border.

By 2 P.M., IDF troops had established positions overlooking 11 south Lebanese towns and villages up to six kilometers north of the Israeli border.

Lebanon: More than 900 deadIsrael's three-week-old offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon has killed more than 900 people and wounded 3,000, with a third of the casualties children under 12, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Thursday.

Siniora, in a video message to a summit of leaders of the Muslim world, added that a quarter of the population, or one million people, had been displaced.