ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER – Israeli tanks and hundreds of troops moved in and out of Lebanon on Saturday, taking over a village and battling Hezbollah militants by land, sea and air as part of a limited ground campaign.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese fleeing north packed into the port of Sidon to escape the increased Israeli offensive.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the conflict had displaced at least 700,000 Lebanese so far, and Israel’s destruction of bridges and roads has made access to them difficult.
“I’m afraid of a major humanitarian disaster,” he told CNN.
As part of an effort to avert a possible humanitarian crisis, Israel eased its blockade of Lebanon’s ports to allow the first shiploads of aid to arrive. It remained unclear how that aid would get to the isolated towns and villages in the south, where the fighting has been centered over the past 11 days.
Israel increased its limited ground offensive in the area Saturday as Hezbollah guerrillas continued firing rockets into northern Israel.
A group of Israeli tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers knocked down a border fence and entered the area Saturday afternoon.
The equipment and about 25 soldiers raced past a U.N. outpost and headed into the village that other Israeli soldiers already had seized. Gunfire could be heard coming from the village, and artillery based inside Israel also was firing into the area.
In all, a total of about 2,000 Israeli troops entered the area Saturday, but some returned to Israel during the day. No Israeli or Hezbollah casualties were immediately reported.
Lebanese security sources, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said the Israeli military had made incursions of only a few hundred yards into the Maroun al-Ras and Yaroun villages. On the Israeli side of the border, troops headed into Maroun al-Ras and said they were fighting with Hezbollah militants.
In Maroun al-Ras, about 32 residents took refuge at the U.N. observers post. But almost the entire remaining population of the village â€” about 2,300 before the crisis broke out â€” were believed to have fled, Lebanese security officials said.
At one point, a half-ton bomb was dropped on a Hezbollah outpost, about 500 yards from the border and near the village. Other positions were bombarded by Israeli gunboats operating off the coast.
Soldiers told The Associated Press that Israeli forces were just 200 yards from Hezbollah militants, who fired back.
Also, Hezbollah guerrillas fired at the Israeli army base of Nurit on Israel’s side of the border, wounding one soldier, the army said.
An Israeli military radio network that broadcasts in the south, Al-Mashriq, warned residents of 13 villages to flee by 4 p.m. The villages form a corridor nearly 4 miles wide extending north from the border to a point about 11 miles from the border, or five miles south of the Litani River.
Israeli military officials have said they want to push Hezbollah beyond the river. More than 400,000 people live south of the Litani. Though tens of thousands of people have left, many are believed still there, trapped by the damaged roads or by fear of being caught in an airstrike.
The Syrian Red Crescent said more than 200,000 Lebanese have fled toÂ Syria. The Red Crescent has mobilized teams to shepherd refugees to schools that have been converted into hostels or to mosques or private homes.
A deeper Israeli ground incursion could dramatically increase the pain in Lebanon.
Israel’s offensive began July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid.
The Lebanese health ministry has reported 362 deaths in Lebanon in the onslaught. Thirty-four Israelis have been killed, including 18 soldiers and an air force officer killed Friday when two helicopters collided.
A senior Israeli military official said that despite the growing ground offensive, Israel did not want to occupy southern Lebanon as it did in 1982-2000 to create a buffer zone to protect northern Israel.
Instead, Israel wants to weaken Hezbollah to make it easier for the Lebanese army to move into areas previously controlled by the guerrillas, possibly with the aid of a beefed up international peacekeeping force, the official said on condition of anonymity because of the topic’s military sensitivity.
Secretary of StateÂ Condolezza RiceÂ will visit the Middle East on Sunday, her first trip to the region since the crisis erupted, but she ruled out a quick cease-fire as a “false promise.”
Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israeli towns from north of the Lebanese border, killing 15 civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to repeatedly flee into bunkers.
On Saturday, at least 92 rockets struck northern Israel, hitting Carmiel, Kiryat Shemona, Nahariya and smaller communities and wounding five Israelis.
After Maroun al-Ras was taken, small groups of Israeli soldiers in armored personal carriers traveled to and from the village.
In Marwahin, also along the border, Israeli troops recovered anti-tank missiles, a launcher and other weapons used by Hezbollah. The army said that more than 150 Hezbollah targets in Lebanon had been attacked.
Elsewhere, Israeli warplanes blasted communications and television transmission towers in the central and northern Lebanese mountains, knocking out the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.
Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said Friday the military would conduct “limited ground operations as much as needed in order to harm the terror that harms us” â€” leaving it unclear how deep and how powerful the Israeli punch into Lebanon would be.
On Friday, Israel knocked out a key bridge on the road to Syria and pummeled Hezbollah positions in the south as long lines of tanks and armored personnel carriers lined up at the border â€” in some places close enough to see Lebanese homes on the other side.
In Beirut, ships continued to arrive at the main port, part of a massive evacuation effort to pull out Americans and other foreigners.