Hizbollah fighters in fierce battles with Israeli troops

Hizbollah fighters fought fierce battles with Israeli troops across a broad front in Lebanon’s south Tuesday, hours after the government in Israel ordered its army to punch all the way to the Litani River and hold the ground until an international peacekeeping force comes ashore.

Gunships hovering at low altitude tried to land on hilltops overlooking Baalbek, a main Hizbollah stronghold, but faced fierce resistance from Hizbollah fighters, who opened up with anti-aircraft batteries, they said.

One helicopter landed for a few moments on Ain Jawzeh hill, east of Baalbek, but was forced to flee because of intense Hizbollah fire.

Gunships also flew at low altitude while combing the road linking Baalbek to the Syrian city of Homs, attacking and setting fire to three service stations.

The aircraft had zoomed over northern Lebanon before diving over the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country where they staged 12 raids on the region of Baalbek, firing at least 24 rockets. There was no word on possible casualties.

Ominously, the Israeli army said it distributed leaflets northeast of the Litani River during the day on villages in which Hizbollah was active. The leaflets told people there to leave, suggesting that the new Israeli offensive could take its forces even deeper into Lebanon that originally planned.

In announcing the expanded operation, Israeli officials said their soldiers were to go as far as the Litani, about 30 kilometres from the Israeli border.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was not in Israel’s interest to agree to an immediate ceasefire in the offensive because every day of fighting weakens the Hizbollah fighters.

“Every additional day is a day that drains the strength of this cruel enemy,” he said. “Every extra day is a day in which the [army] reduces their capability, contains their firing ability and their ability to hit in the future.” Israel resumed sporadic air strikes — hitting Hizbollah strongholds and supply lines from one end of Lebanon to the other — despite a pledge to suspend such attacks for another day in response to world outrage over the killing of 56 Lebanese in a weekend Israeli bombing.

Hizbollah had fired just 10 rockets across the border, well below an average of about 100 a day since the fighting began 21 days ago, Israel said.

In the face of Israeli determination to keep fighting until it pushes Hizbollah out of rocket-range, there was only minimal diplomatic progress towards an immediate end to the onslaught.

President George W. Bush held fast to support for Israel and was pressing for a United Nations resolution linking a ceasefire with a broader plan for peace in the Middle East, despite rising international pressure for a simple no-strings-attached halt to the fighting.

Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister, gave qualified endorsement to an international security force, during a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“If the international community thinks the force will help, OK,” Peres said.

European Union foreign ministers called an “immediate cessation of hostilities” followed by international efforts to get agreement on a sustainable ceasefire.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU presidency, said all EU ministers agreed to call “for an immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable ceasefire.” Britain, Germany and others watered down initial demands for an “immediate ceasefire,” arguing such a move would do little to help deliver a lasting peaceful solution.

“Cessation of hostilities is not the same as a ceasefire,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “A ceasefire can perhaps be achieved later.

… We can now only ask the UN Security Council and put pressure on it and not to waste any more time.” At nightfall Tuesday, Israeli troops were engaged in fierce battles with Hizbollah at several points along the common border. Reporters and Arab television reported especially heavy fighting and Israeli artillery bombardment at the village of Aita Shaab.

Hizbollah’s Manar TV showed video of Israeli army equipment — helmets, bullet proof vests, boots and water canteens emblazoned with Hebrew lettering — apparently left behind by Israeli soldiers in the border towns of Adaisse and Kfar Kila.

The Israeli army said late Tuesday that three Israeli soldiers died and 25 were lightly wounded by small arms fire and anti-tank rockets in Aita Shaab.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said the fighting to date had killed 300 of Hizbollah’s main force of 2,000 fighters, which does not include its less-well trained reserves. “That’s a very hard blow.” he said.

Hizbollah has said that only 46 of its fighters were killed.

Four were lost in battles with Israeli ground troops in Adaisse and Taibeh, near the Christian town of Marjayoun, about 8 kilometres from the border with Israel, Hizbollah said.

To the east at Kfar Kila, reporters saw at least three air strikes, and the thud of artillery shells from Israeli ground troops was constant. About 20 shells landed in the hills around Kfar Kila in the course of one 45-minute period.

Israeli jet fighters also struck deep inside Lebanese territory, hitting Hermel, 120 kilometres north of the Israeli border in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Warplanes fired at least five air-to-surface missiles on the edge of the town, targeting a road linking eastern Lebanon to western regions and the coastline.

Six hours later, warplanes returned to Hermel, hitting a pickup truck loaded with cooking gas tanks, security officials said. The canisters exploded, sending flames shooting up from the vehicle for nearly an hour. The driver was out of the truck and not hurt.

In the west, Israeli warships fired artillery into the villages of Mansouri, Shamaa and Teir Harfan around the port city of Tyre. No casualties were reported.

Another strike at an area near the Syrian border, about 10 kilometres north of Hermel, targeted the Qaa-Homs road, one of four official crossing points between Lebanon and Syria. Two of the four border crossings are now closed because of damage and repeated air strikes have made the main Beirut-Damascus highway impassable.

In other developments:

— Despite air attacks throughout Israel’s pledged pause, Cabinet  Ramon on Tuesday announced its official end, saying air strikes would resume in full force when the 48-hour period expired at 1:00am Wednesday.

— Three Lebanese civilians were killed and three seriously wounded when Israeli warplanes hit a house in the southern Lebanese town of Lweizeh, Lebanese security officials said.

Hizbollah issued a statement later saying that in retaliation for the raid, the group fired “tens of rockets” into northern Israel.

— The Lebanese Red Cross said the bodies of 12 civilians were retrieved from the rubble of buildings destroyed in air strikes on four villages in southern Lebanon and many more were believed still buried. It was not clear when the victims were killed.

— United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner in Geneva warned that the longer a spill of 110,000 barrels of oil is not cleaned up,  the  more  severe the environmental impact will be. The oil spilled two weeks ago after Israeli warplanes hit a coastal power plant.

— Aid groups had hoped to take advantage of the supposed 48-hour lull in air strikes to get food and medicine to civilians trapped in the south. But Israel denied access to two UN convoys. Others who made the journey described air strikes close to their convoys, and bodies along the road.

— In Jordan, officials said Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib was expected to leave today for Beirut to deliver “a Royal Hashemite message of solidarity to the Lebanese people and officials”. He will meet with Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and other top officials, a source told Agence France-Presse.

The officials added that  King Abdullah ordered the “immediate delivery” of gasoline to Lebanon, which is suffering from severe shortages, upon a request by the Lebanese government.

Jordan inaugurated an air bridge to Lebanon last Wednesday, and eight flights have carried supplies of medicines, medical supplies and water purification systems. Such flights will continue, the officials said.

Also yesterday, Egyptian officials said Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s was going to visit Lebanon today. They gave no further details.

At least 532 Lebanese have been killed — including 461 civilians confirmed dead by the health ministry, 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hizbollah fighters. The health minister says the toll could be as high as 750, including those still buried in rubble or missing.

Fifty-one Israelis have died — 33 soldiers and 18 civilians, killed in Hizbollah rocket attacks.

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