Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Israeli forces step up attack, push deep

Clash far north with Hezbollah

BOSTON GLOBE | August 2, 2006

By Charles A. Radin and Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff

SHTULA, Israel -- Several thousand Israeli troops made their deepest push yet into southern Lebanon yesterday and battled Hezbollah fighters in a series of fierce clashes. Tens of thousands more Israeli reservists were poised for a possible major ground incursion.

Just before midnight, Israeli helicopters landed soldiers far north in Lebanon in the city of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold and training area about 80 miles north of the border with Israel and near the Syrian frontier. News reports said Israeli commandos, backed by jets, battled Hezbollah forces in and around a hospital for four hours. The Israeli military said the commandos captured several guerrillas.

It was the most sweeping offensive yet in the three-week-old Israeli campaign against the Islamist fighters, who have fired about 1,600 rockets into northern Israel. The Israeli operation was an attempt to deal Hezbollah a crippling blow in advance of any negotiated cease-fire.

After nightfall, bombing and shelling accelerated along the southern coast of Lebanon. Israeli jets roared overhead, their lights and flares tracing bright arcs in the night sky. Huge fireballs, sometimes four at a time, illuminated the ridge overlooking the Mediterranean, and loud booms echoed from the mountains.

In the coastal city of Tyre, about 20 miles north of the Israeli border, residents lined the seaside promenade to watch the explosions. Others sat glued to their televisions, watching news of the Israeli advance.

The heaviest fighting yesterday was in the village of Ita al-Shayeb, about 1 mile into Lebanese territory, and other border towns identified by the Israeli military as Hezbollah strongholds. The Israelis said three of their soldiers and about 20 Hezbollah fighters were killed, but casualties probably were higher as the Israelis went house to house in their drive to destroy Hezbollah rocket launchers, weapons stores, and command centers. Hezbollah said that only three of its fighters were killed and that 35 Israelis were killed or wounded.

Israel Defense Forces spokesmen would not disclose how many soldiers were in Lebanon. A military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers entered the country during the day but that many were involved in limited missions and then withdrew.

As the fighting heated up, Israeli aircraft scattered fliers across all of south Lebanon warning any remaining civilian residents to flee. ``The Israeli military will act with all its forces against the terrorist guerrillas starting from this moment," the fliers said. ``The life of all who remain in the area is in danger."

Another flier said simply: ``Flee, flee, far away. Save yourselves."

Most civilians in southern Lebanon have already evacuated. But there are still civilian pockets in some border towns.

``I will not leave unless there is a hundred percent danger," said Ramzi Koshaya, a long-haired barber in sunglasses, who was reading the Israeli flier yesterday afternoon in the nearly empty central square of Marjayoun, a town just south of the Litani River and 6 miles from the Israeli border. ``Right now there isn't. [But] it will get worse," he said. ``Israel will continue attacking until it realizes its goals."

Two Lebanese soldiers sped through town in a yellow Mercedes, shouting out the windows for remaining residents to leave.

In Khiam, Hezbollah fighters scrambled through the narrow streets as Israeli shells and at least four bombs exploded on the town's outskirts. The whiz of outgoing Hezbollah rockets echoed in the air.

A Hezbollah fighter in camouflage pants and a T-shirt, who identified himself as Hussam abu Mohammed, said Hezbollah had ordered civilians out of Khiam because it expected a major battle. ``We are too busy fighting to help the people here," the fighter said.

Most of houses in Khiam were abandoned, many left with the doors open. A butcher returned to salvage his equipment, in anticipation of an Israeli invasion and bombing campaign that he said he expected would destroy the town.

At Shtula, a farming cooperative on the Israeli side of the border, two Israeli reconnaissance drones and two Apache helicopters were observed hovering over Ita al-Shayeb, a mile into Lebanon.

Puffs of white smoke issued from the helicopters as they fired their missiles, which sent up huge clouds of ash and smoke when they struck.

One of the missiles appeared to hit a weapons store or rocket launcher. A huge explosion boomed across the valley, shaking the ground 2 miles away and sending a mushroom cloud of black smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the sky.

From the Israeli side, artillery batteries pounded the village and other targets up to 15 miles inside southern Lebanon. Israeli tanks rumbled back and forth across the border from Israeli military bases nearby.

At least one Israeli tank was hit by Hezbollah antitank missiles. It was towed back across the border.

Israel had agreed to limit air attacks for 48 hours after an airstrike on Sunday in the village of Qana killed dozens of people, most of them women and children, prompting widespread condemnation and calls for a cease-fire. But Israel said it would continue to hit any target that posed an imminent threat to its territory or personnel. Israel Radio reported strikes yesterday on strategic road links to Syria in an effort to halt new supplies of Iranian weapons for the Hezbollah forces.

Government ministers said that no cease-fire was in sight and that no deadline had been given to the armed forces for finishing their efforts to destroy the military capabilities of Hezbollah, which, like the Iranian regime, is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.

``A deadline will only be determined in accordance with an international diplomatic solution," said Meir Sheetrit, a member of the Cabinet from the ruling Kadima party, ``and it's clear that things are only slowly moving in that direction."

After nearly three weeks of constant bombardment by Hezbollah rockets, the residents of northern Israel enjoyed their second day in a row virtually free of rocket fire. A few Hezbollah rockets fell in the area of Metulla, Israel's northernmost town, but there were no casualties.

The landing in Baalbek was an extraordinary development in the Israeli effort to debilitate Hezbollah. The city and the valley around it are about 60 miles north of the Litani River, which is the northernmost limit of the area from which Israel is trying to expel the guerrillas. Major Hezbollah training, munitions storage, and command facilities are located there.

The city, home to a series of ancient Roman ruins, was a Syrian Army headquarters during that country's long dominance of Lebanon, and it was home to Iranian Revolutionary Guards when they trained Hezbollah fighters in the early days of the organization.

Hezbollah's chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, told the Associated Press that Israeli helicopters dropped troops near Dar al-Hikma Hospital, which is financed by an Iranian charity, the Imam Khomeini Charitable Society, that is linked to Hezbollah.

Airstrikes set the hospital afire, and at least five people were killed from missiles that struck surrounding hills, witnesses told the news service.

Rahal denied the Israeli claim that several guerrillas were captured and that all its commandos returned safe. He insisted several Israelis were trapped at the hospital.

Hezbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid, triggering the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.

There was little movement on the diplomatic front, as Bush administration officials said they were working toward establishing an international peacekeeping force, but that no quick cease-fire seemed likely. United Nations officials announced that nations willing to contribute troops to such a force would meet tomorrow.

Radin reported from Jerusalem and Cambanis from southern Lebanon. Globe correspondent Matthew Kalman reported from Shtula. Globe correspondent Alon Tuval contributed to this report.

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