TANKS, BULLDOZERS AND armoured personnel carriers knocked down a fence and barrelled over the border Saturday as Israeli forces stepped up a small-scale ground offensive into southern Lebanon to try to attack the Hizbollah group.
The soldiers battled Hizbollah fighters throughout the day, and raided the large Lebanese village of Maroun Ras in several waves before seizing control, military officials claimed. Tens of thousands of Lebanese fleeing north packed into the port of Sidon to escape the fighting.
The growing use of ground forces, 11 days into the fighting, signalled Israeli recognition that its air strikes alone were not enough to force Hizbollah out of southern Lebanon. But a ground offensive carries greater risks to Israeli forces, which have already lost 18 soldiers in the recent fighting. And it threatens to exacerbate already trying conditions for Lebanese civilians in the area.
Israeli military officials have said they want to push Hizbollah beyond the Litani River, about 30 kilometres north of the border, with the Lebanese army deploying in the border zone. An Israeli radio station that broadcasts to southern Lebanon warned residents of 13 villages to flee north by Saturday afternoon. The villages form a corridor about six kilometres wide and 18 kilometres deep.
Meanwhile, the US was expediting an arms shipment of precision bombs to Israel from an arms deal struck last year amid the Jewish state’s ongoing assault on Lebanon, a US official said Saturday.
A decision to rush delivery of the weapons following a request from Israel was made around the time Israel’s campaign in Lebanon began July 12 following the capture of two of its soldiers by the Hizbollah militia, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“It’s part of an arms sale that was made in 2005,” the official said.
The shipment “has either been made or is in the process of being delivered,” said the official.
Last year’s arms deal allows Israel to tap into US arms depending on need.
The White House press office refused to comment on a decision that was first reported by The New York Times.
With Lebanese fearing an escalation in the battle, international officials worked to end the conflict.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was scheduled to arrive in the Middle East on Sunday, though she ruled out a quick ceasefire as a â€œfalse promise.â€ US President George W. Bush said Saturday that his administration’s diplomatic efforts would focus on finding a strategy for confronting Hizbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers.
â€œSecretary Rice will make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it,â€ Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Italy, which has been trying to mediate an end to the fighting, said it would hold a conference Wednesday to work out the basis for a truce agreement. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has proposed a beefed-up UN force along the Lebanese border, but Israel has called for the Lebanese army to take control of the area.
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. â€œI’m afraid of a major humanitarian disaster,â€ he told CNN.
As part of an effort to avert such a 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 centred.
Israel has mostly attacked with air strikes, but small units have crossed the border in recent days and fought with Hizbollah fighters.
A far larger force of about 2,000 troops entered the area Saturday trying to root out Hizbollah bunkers and destroy hidden rocket launchers.
The troops, backed by tanks and armoured vehicles raced past a UN outpost and headed into Maroun Ras. Gunfire could be heard coming from the village, and artillery batteries in Israel also fired into the area.
â€œThe forces have completed, more or less, their control of the area of the village, Maroun Ras, and made lots of hits against terrorists,â€ said Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of Israel’s ground forces. â€œIt was a difficult fight that continued for not a short time.â€ Dozens of Hizbollah fighters were injured or killed in the battle, Gantz claimed. Hizbollah said two of its fighters were killed Saturday, bringing the total number of acknowledged Hizbollah fighters killed to eight. Israel accuses the group of vastly underreporting its casualties.
The village was strategically important because it overlooked an area where Hizbollah had command posts, Gantz said. The forces seized a cache of weapons and rockets in a mosque in the village, he added.
At one point, a half-tonne bomb was dropped on a Hizbollah outpost, about 500 metres from the border and near the village. Other positions were bombarded by Israeli gunboats off the coast.
About 32 residents of the village took refuge at the UN observers post. Nearly the entire remaining population of the village â€” which numbered about 2,300 before the crisis broke out â€” were believed to have fled, Lebanese security officials said.
Some of the invading forces returned to Israel during the day.
About 35,000 fleeing Lebanese filled the southern town of Sidon as they searched for a place to stay or a way to get farther north.
â€œI’m afraid a disaster is going to happen with all these refugees. There’s no aid, not from other nations, not from Lebanon,â€ Mayor Abdul-Rahman Bizri said.
More than 200,000 Lebanese fled to Syria, according to the Syrian Red Crescent.
The Israeli army said it wanted to completely destroy all Hizbollah infrastructure in an area between one and three kilometres from the border, but it had no intention of going deeper into Lebanon than that.
â€œWe really want to knock out Hizbollah in this area,â€ said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. â€œWe want to wipe them out, and we don’t intend for them to ever be there again.â€ A senior Israeli military official confirmed that Israel did not plan to reoccupy southern Lebanon â€” as it did from 1982 to 2000 to create a buffer zone to protect northern Israel.
Israel’s current offensive began July 12 when Hizbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid.
Israeli air strikes on Saturday blasted communications and television transmission towers in the central and northern Lebanese mountains, knocking the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. off the air and killing one person at the station.
The death toll in Lebanon rose to at least 372, Lebanese authorities said.
Over the past 11 days, Hizbollah has launched nearly 1,000 rockets into Israel, killing 15 civilians and sending hundreds of thousands of others fleeing into bunkers. At least 132 rockets landed in Israel on Saturday, wounding 20 people, three seriously, rescue officials said.
A total of 19 Israeli troops have been killed in the fighting so far.
Hizbollah fighters also fired at the Israeli army base of Nurit on Israel’s side of the border, and wounded one soldier, the army said.
Israel’s call for Lebanese to leave much of the area south of the Litani River caused many Lebanese to fear that a far deeper Israeli ground incursion was being planned, an offensive that would almost certainly lead to far higher casualties on both sides.
More than 400,000 people live south of the Litani. Though tens of thousands have left, many are believed still there, trapped by the damaged roads or by fear of being caught in an air strike.
After Israel seized Maroun Ras, which is believed to be a launching point for the rocket attacks on northern Israel, several small groups of Israeli soldiers in armoured personal carriers travelled to and from the village. UN peacekeepers and witnesses said the Israeli forces briefly held the nearby village of Marwaheen before pulling back.
Meanwhile, French Forign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy warned in Cairo that the continuation of the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah could lead to the destruction of Lebanon.
“We have to… call for an immediate halt to hostilities and find all the conditions for a ceasefire,” he said after meeting his Egyptian counterpart.
“If we do not do that, it is the destruction of the Lebanese state.”
After Egypt, Douste-Blazy’s diplomatic round of the Middle East continued in Jordan, where he called along with King Abdullah for Lebanon’s unity to be safeguarded amid the conflict.
King Abdullah urged “an immediate and global ceasefire, an end to aggression and the Israeli military escalation”, according to Jordan News Agency, Petra.
King Abdullah told Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora over the telephone that Jordan was ready to treat at local hospitals Lebanese wounded in the Israeli attacks.