Tire, Lebanon (Reuters) – Hizbollah guerrillas and advancing Israeli troops fought pitched battles atÂ the entrance to a key town in south Lebanon on Wednesday and Arab television stations said up to 13 Israeli soldiers had been killed.
Lebanese security sources said fierce fighting broke out when an Israeli force controlling a nearby hill tried to advance to the main entrance of the town of Bint Jbeil, a Hizbollah stronghold 4 km (2.5 miles) from the Israel-Lebanon border.
Guerrillas ambushed the advancing force and fighting at close quarters ensued. Hizbollah sources said the advancing force was cut off and most of its vehicles were destroyed and soldiers hit.
The Hizbollah sources estimated 35 casualties had been inflicted on the force and said Israeli attempts to evacuate casualties had been foiled. “Our men can hear the screams of their wounded calling for help,” one source said.
Al Jazeera Television said 13 soldiers had been killed while Al Arabiya Television put the Israeli death toll at 12.
Such a toll would be the heaviest for Israel’s army since it launched an offensive against Hizbollah more than two weeks ago.
Israeli media said up to 13 soldiers had been wounded. An army spokesman said he could only several soldiers were wounded.
Israeli forces have been battling for days to take over Bint Jbeil since seizing a village closer to the border last week
The army estimates it has killed up to 30 guerrillas in the battle for the Bint Jbeil stronghold, home to 4,000 people. Hizbollah has so far said it lost 10.
Until the latest fighting, nine Israeli troops had been killed in the ground offensive inside southern Lebanon.
“We knew well that we are entering a dangerous nest and the nest needs to be taken care of slowly,” Major Tzvika Golan, Israeli spokesman, told journalists near a convoy of armored vehicles parked by the road just inside Israel.
Asked how the army was progressing in Lebanon, Golan said: “Slowly, house by house, village by village. We are doing our best to take out all of Hizbollah.”
As the fighting raged in Bint Jbeil, Israeli warplanes launched more than 50 strikes on targets across south Lebanon.
Senior Israeli officers have described Bint Jbeil as the main Hizbollah outpost in southern Lebanon, where Israel launched its Lebanese offensive after Hizbollah killed eight soldiers and abducted two others in a cross-border raid.
Taking Bint Jbeil would be a morale-booster for Israel but Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the aim of his fighters was to inflict Israeli casualties, not hold territory.
In a televised message broadcast early on Wednesday he said the guerrillas might not be able to stop Israeli forces from entering towns and villages as they were not a classic army.
“We fight guerrilla warfare … the important thing is what losses we inflict on the Israeli enemy,” he said, vowing his men would put up a fight wherever Israeli ground forces attack.
Clearing Bint Jbeil could also be part of Israel’s plan to establish a no-go zone for the guerrillas in southern Lebanon until an international force arrives to take over.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said on Tuesday Israel would control a “security strip” along the 80 km (50 mile) frontier and fire at anyone who entered.
He did not say how wide it would be. Israeli government sources estimated the zone’s width at 3-4 km (2-2.5 miles).
According to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hizbollah fighters are holed up in a network of tunnels and trenches around Shi’ite Muslim villages in southern Lebanon. Israel ordered civilians out of 14 of the villages over the weekend.