Tire, Lebanon (Reuters) – Hizbollah guerrillas and advancing Israeli troops fought pitched battles at the entrance to a key town in south Lebanon on Wednesday, killing eight Israeli soldiers and wounding 22.
Lebanese security sources said fierce fighting broke out when an Israeli force controlling a nearby hill tried to advance to the main entrance 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.
The Israeli army said eight of its soldiers were killed and 22 wounded. Arabic media had reported that as many as 13 soldiers died in the clash. The Israeli army said this figure was incorrect.
Israeli forces have been battling for days to take over Bint Jbeil since seizing the village of Maroun al-Ras, closer to the border, last week. Hizbollah later said it attacked a concentration of Israeli forces in the outskirts of Maroun al-Ras, inflicting more Israeli casualties.
Israeli medics said several soldiers had been wounded in the village.
Israeli security sources estimate the number of Hizbollah dead up to Tuesday at more than 130. Hizbollah has acknowledged losing 28 fighters.
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 jets launched more than 70 strikes on targets across south Lebanon, killing one. Hizbollah fired more than 125 rockets into Israel, wounding dozens.
An Israeli air strike destroyed a building housing the office of Hizbollah’s top official in the south, Sheikh Nabil Kaouk. He was not in the building but rescuers were searching the rubble to see if there were buried civilians.
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 more than two weeks ago.
Hizbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised message broadcast early on Wednesday his 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 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.