Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Israelis search house to house for weapons

Near the Israeli border town of Zarit, Israeli troops prepare to enter Lebanon. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

3 soldiers killed in rocket-propelled grenade attack

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Page A - 10

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Shtula, Israel-Lebanon border -- At least three Israeli soldiers were reported killed Tuesday as they engaged in house-to-house searches at villages in south Lebanon. Israeli military sources said the villages were Hezbollah strongholds and the soldiers' mission was to destroy rocket launchers, weapons supplies and Hezbollah command centers.

In the village of Aita al-Shaab, about a mile north of the Israel-Lebanon border, Israeli forces engaged in daylong battles with Hezbollah commandos as they tried to take control of the area. The three soldiers died in a rocket-propelled grenade attack, and about two dozen more soldiers were injured in the day's fighting, the Israeli military said.

The smoke and sounds of the battle could be seen and heard clearly from the Israeli side of the border. Two Israeli reconnaissance drones buzzed overhead, while high up in the clouds two Apache helicopters hovered, waiting to deliver missile attacks on pinpoint targets in the village. Three or four puffs of white smoke heralded the firing of each missile, which slammed into the village, sending huge clouds of ash and smoke roiling into the sky.

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 a mushroom cloud of black smoke billowed up hundreds of feet.

Israeli tanks rumbled back and forth across the border from Israeli military bases nearby. At least one Israeli tank that had been hit by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles was towed back across the border, blackened and still smoldering.

Inside the border, Israeli troops rested by their tanks and armored cars, drinking coffee and smoking. Some slept on makeshift bedding of coats and blankets. Others gathered around their commanders, listening to briefings on the next stage of their mission.

As the day wore on, reservists began moving toward the border, preparing to enter south Lebanon by the thousands, doubling the Israeli ground forces. They had been mobilized over the weekend and completed three days of refresher training before being deployed.

Near the Israeli border village of Zarit, more than a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers drew up in line, waiting for the order to join the fighting.

Israeli tourist buses carrying B Platoon stopped late Tuesday night at the side of the road outside Metulla, Israel's northernmost town, so the young conscripts, all wearing the distinctive red boots of the Israeli paratroop regiment, could make their final preparations before heading into battle. They smeared black paint on their faces and assembled a range of equipment -- stretchers, communications gear, camouflaged helmets with night-vision goggles and various types of weaponry.

Some of the soldiers had a last-minute snack and a drink; others lit up cigarettes. Across the hills, they could hear the dull booms of the battle that awaited them in Lebanon.

"It looks like a mess, but everyone has his job and it's actually very well organized," said one of the soldiers, who was not allowed by military regulations to give his name. "We've been training for a long time, and we just want to get in there and get the job done."

The soldiers' mood was casual but businesslike. They checked their equipment and gathered around their commanding officer for a final briefing. He went over their mission and reminded them of various procedures: the importance of maintaining radio silence, how to avoid injuring their comrades by friendly fire, what to do if they came under fire from a house and rules for evacuating the wounded.

Some wore the small knitted skullcaps of observant Jews. Others covered each others' heads with their hands as they recited a short prayer for the success of their mission. Then they reboarded the tourist buses, which took them to the front lines.

A few Hezbollah rockets fell in the area of Metulla, where perhaps half of the population of about 1,400 remain, but there were no casualties.

After nearly three weeks of constant bombardment by Hezbollah rockets, the people living in northern Israel enjoyed their second day in a row virtually free of rocket fire. The army instructed residents of towns in the north to stay indoors, but the seaside town of Nahariya showed signs of returning to life as residents gingerly took to the streets after 20 days in shelters.

An early-morning air-raid siren sent people running for cover, but it turned out to be a false alarm by a new "Red Dawn" warning system designed to give residents about 10 seconds' warning of an imminent rocket attack.

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