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Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Pitched battle for a village

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS August 2, 2006

BY MATTHEW KALMAN
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

SHTULA, Israel - Three or four white puffs of smoke heralded the firing of each missile, which slammed seconds later into the Lebanese village of Ita Al-Shayeb, sending huge clouds of ash and smoke high into the air.

One missile appeared to hit a weapons store or rocket launcher. A huge explosion boomed across the valley, shaking the ground 2 miles away, and a cloud of black smoke billowed into the sky.

Farther back on the Israeli side of the border, artillery batteries pounded the village and other targets up to 15 miles inside southern Lebanon.

Overhead, two Israeli drones buzzed, while high up in the clouds a pair of Apache helicopters hovered, waiting to send their missiles streaking into the village.

The battle for Ita Al-Shayeb, about a mile north of the border, lasted all day yesterday as Israeli commandos tried to take control of the area.

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

Inside the Israeli border, Israeli troops rested by their tanks and armored cars, drinking coffee and smoking. Some slept on makeshift cots by the roadside.

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

Buses unloaded hundreds of troops, their freshly pressed uniforms and clean faces in sharp contrast to the exhausted soldiers returning from battle.

Israeli tourist buses carrying B Platoon, wearing the distinctive red boots of the Israeli paratroop regiment, stopped at the side of the road outside the border town of Metulla late last night so the young conscripts could make their final preparations before heading into battle.

They smeared black paint on their faces and donned camouflaged helmets with night-vision goggles.

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

The soldiers' mood was casual but businesslike as they checked their equipment and gathered around their commanding officer for a final briefing. He went over their mission and reminded them of maintaining radio silence, what to do if they came under fire from a house and rules for evacuating the wounded under fire.

Some of the soldiers wore the small knitted skullcaps of the religious. Others covered one another's heads with their hands as they recited a short prayer for the success of their mission. Then, with quiet purpose, they boarded the tourist buses that would take them to the front lines.

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