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Israeli troops roll into Lebanon

Published July 23, 2006

ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER - Israeli tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers knocked down a fence and barreled over the Lebanese border Saturday as forces seized a village from the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

The soldiers battled militants throughout the day and raided the large village of Maroun al-Ras in several waves before finally taking control, military officials said.

Early today, warplanes for the first time hit inside the port city of Sidon, swollen with refugees, destroying a religious complex the Israeli military said was used by Hezbollah. Officials said four people were wounded.

A series of large explosions reverberated through Beirut in the early hours today as Israeli aircraft again pounded Hezbollah's stronghold in the south.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese fleeing north had packed into Sidon to escape the fighting as the United Nations warned of a growing humanitarian disaster.

The growing use of ground forces, 11 days into the fighting, signaled Israeli recognition that airstrikes alone were not enough to force Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon.

Israeli military officials have said they want to push Hezbollah beyond the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border, with the Lebanese army deploying in the border zone.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was set to arrive in the Middle East today, though she ruled out a quick cease-fire as a "false promise."

President Bush said his administration's efforts would focus on finding a strategy for confronting Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers.

"Secretary Rice will make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it," Bush said.

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.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said it would take more than $100-million to help the displaced.

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.

The Israeli troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, raced past a U.N. outpost and headed into Maroun al-Ras. Dozens of Hezbollah fighters were injured or killed in the battle, Gantz said.

Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed Saturday, bringing the total number of acknowledged Hezbollah fighters killed to eight.

The Israeli army said it wanted to destroy all Hezbollah infrastructure in an area between a half-mile and 2 miles from the border, but it had no intention of going deeper into Lebanon.

"We really want to knock out Hezbollah in this area," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. "We want to wipe them out, and we don't intend for them to ever be there again."

The death toll in Lebanon rose to at least 372, Lebanese authorities said.

Over the past 11 days, Hezbollah 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.

A steady stream of foreign nationals boarded ships and planes Saturday to take them away.

U.S. officials said more than 7,500 Americans had been evacuated from Lebanon by Saturday night.

Also Saturday, senior Palestinian officials said militant groups in the Gaza Strip agreed to stop firing missiles at Israel at midnight Saturday, if Israel launches no new raids into Gaza. But two main guerrilla groups denied that any agreement had been reached.

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 01:29:58]

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