JERUSALEM -- Israel will create a Hezbollah-free zone in south Lebanon just over a mile deep, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday, outlining for the first time the dimensions of Israeli plans in the area.
But Olmert, speaking at a closed-door meeting of parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, was quick to quash the idea of establishing a new ``security zone" -- a term many in Israel associate with a military quagmire six years after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz had used the term Tuesday.
``We do not have any intention of returning to the security zone, but want to create an area where there will be no Hezbollah," Olmert was quoted as saying, according to participants in the meeting who later briefed reporters.
``We want a 2- kilometer [1.2-mile] space from the border in which it will not be possible to fire rockets toward soldiers and civilians' houses and in which there will not be contact with military border patrols," Olmert was quoted as saying.
There will not be any troops inside the zone, but it would be kept clear by artillery fire and air power, a senior Olmert aide later said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge the contents of the meeting.
The buffer zone would help prevent Hezbollah guerrillas from staging raids across the border, such as the attack July 12 that killed three soldiers, led to the capture of two others, and sparked the current fighting. But it is not clear how such a zone would stop the rocket attacks. In the last two weeks, Hezbollah has fired nearly 1,500 rockets, some striking as deep as 25 miles into Israel.
Israel does not intend to stay in a buffer zone in the long term, Olmert said, calling for an international presence there to take over the job of restraining Hezbollah.
``We need international intervention forces that have military capabilities and the ability to respond and enforce, and not forces similar to UNIFIL," he said, referring to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanaon, a group of largely ineffectual UN peacekeepers who have been deployed in the area since 1978.
Olmert, meanwhile, expressed ``deep regret" yesterday over the killings of four UN observers in an airstrike late Tuesday night, as well as dismay over UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's accusation the bombing was ``apparently deliberate."
Olmert told Annan in a phone call yesterday that the UN post in Khiam was hit inadvertently.
``The prime minister expressed Israel's deep regret over the mistaken killing of four UN peacekeepers," said a statement released by Olmert's office. ``The prime minister said he has instructed the military to carry out a thorough investigation and that the results will be shared with the UN secretary general."
According to a preliminary UN report released to the Associated Press yesterday, UN observers in southern Lebanon called the Israeli military 10 times in a six-hour period to ask it to halt its nearby bombing before their observation post was hit.
During each phone call, an Israeli official promised to halt the bombing, according to a UN official who had seen the preliminary report. The UN observers said the area within half a mile of the post was hit with precision munitions, including 17 bombs and 12 artillery shells, four of which directly hit the post Tuesday, the report said.
China demanded that Israel apologize for the attack, which killed a Chinese UN observer along with observers from Austria, Canada, and Finland.
Olmert expressed dismay over Annan's initial comments in a written statement that the airstrike was ``apparently deliberate."
``It's inconceivable for the UN to define an error as an apparently deliberate action," Olmert said.
Annan said the ``coordinated artillery and aerial attack on a long established and clearly marked UN post at Khiam occurred despite personal assurances given to me by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that UN positions would be spared Israeli fire."
Furthermore, he said, General Alain Pelligrini, the UN force commander in south Lebanon, had been in repeated contact with Israeli officers Tuesday ``stressing the need to protect that particular UN position from attack."
UN officials said Hezbollah militants had been operating in the area of the post near the eastern end of the border with Israel, a routine tactic to prevent Israel from attacking them.
``We did repeatedly in recent days say [to Israel] that this was an exposed position, that Hezbollah militants were 500 [yards] away shielding themselves near UN workers and civilians," UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said. ``That's why it is so inexplicable that what happened happened."
Since fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants began two weeks ago, there have been several dozen incidents of firing close to UN peacekeepers and observers, including direct hits on nine positions, some of them repeatedly, a UN official said.
As a result of these attacks, 12 UN personnel have been killed or injured, UN officials said.
The United Nations has also seen its movements in Lebanon tightly constrained during the current conflict.
Yesterday, a UNIFIL convoy was marooned at the Rest House Hotel in Tyre, four hours behind schedule. The UN was waiting for Israeli clearance to drive south to its base in Naqoura, near the Israeli border, but there was heavy bombing along the route.
``We can't move without coordination at the highest levels," said Captain Ronan Corcoran of Ireland, the UNIFIL spokesman.
While the ground battle was intensifying yesterday near the Israel-Lebanon border, the bombardment in the rest of Lebanon appeared to be easing. Israeli jets were heard repeatedly over Beirut in the evening, but the capital saw no strikes.
About 24 airstrikes were reported outside the immediate border region yesterday, down from nearly 30 a day recently. One strike in the center of the southern port of Tyre collapsed the top floor and ripped the facade off an empty seven-story building where Hezbollah's top commander in the south has offices. The strike wounded 13 people, including six children, nearby.
Yesterday's combat deaths brought to 51 the number of Israelis killed in the campaign, including 32 members of the military. In Lebanon, at least 423 people have been killed -- including 376 civilians reported by the Health Ministry and security officials, 20 Lebanese soldiers and 27 fighters Hezbollah has acknowledged were killed. Israel says more than 100 guerrillas have been killed.
Thanassis Cambanis of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Tyre.