Israel steps up ground assaults

Israel tries to carve out a buffer zone in south Lebanon, perhaps as wide as 18 miles, and launches some incursions farther north.

Published August 2, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israel poured up to 10,000 armored troops into south Lebanon on Tuesday and separately dropped helicopter-borne commandos deep into the eastern Bekaa Valley, where they raided a Hezbollah-run hospital and captured guerrillas during pitched battles in a major escalation of the 3-week-old war.

The Israeli military confirmed the attack on the ancient city of Baalbek, about 80 miles north of Israel. It said troops, ferried in by helicopter, captured an unspecified number of guerrillas and all soldiers returned unharmed. The statement gave no other details.

The raid on Baalbek, once a Syrian army headquarters, was the deepest ground attack on Lebanon since fighting began 21 days ago.

The ferocity of the battles in the Bekaa Valley and across southern Lebanon on Tuesday and the determination of the Israelis to keep fighting quelled expectations for an early cease-fire.

Hezbollah's rocket attacks into Israel, meanwhile, diminished. Hezbollah fired just 10 rockets across the border Tuesday, well below an average of about 100 a day since fighting began.

Early today, Hezbollah's chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, said Israeli troops landed near the Hezbollah-run Dar al-Hikma Hospital in Baalbek, about 10 miles from Lebanon's border with Syria.

"A group of Israeli commandos was brought to the hospital by a helicopter. They entered the hospital and are trapped inside as our fighters opened fire on them, and fierce fighting is still raging," Rahal said early in the operation.

Rahal dismissed as untrue reports that the Israeli commandos managed to take some patients away in helicopters.

Fighting between Israeli commandos and Hezbollah guerrillas around the hospital raged for more than four hours, witnesses said.

They said at least five people were killed as Israeli warplanes staged more than 10 bombing runs around the hospital, as well as on hills in east and north Baalbek, where Hezbollah's Shiite supporters live.

The last time Israel forces were known to have gone this far on the ground into Lebanon was in 1994, when they abducted Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani.

Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid triggered the current Israeli offensive.

In southern Lebanon on Tuesday, up to 10,000 troops in armored personnel carriers and backed by tanks were operating in Lebanon along the border zone, Israeli defense officials said. Israel called up 30,000 reservists over the weekend and thousands of them were gathering at staging areas on the Israeli side of the border.

Israel had 100,000 troops in Lebanon at the height of the 1982 invasion that began an 18-year occupation of the south.

Troops battled guerrillas Tuesday after Israel ordered its army to punch all the way to the Litani River, about 18 miles from the border.

They entered through four different points along the border and moved at least 4 miles inside Lebanon. Israeli officials said their soldiers were to go as far as the Litani, about 18 miles from the border, and hold the ground until an international peacekeeping force comes ashore.

But the army later said it had distributed leaflets northeast of the river at villages where Hezbollah was active. The leaflets told people to leave, suggesting that the new offensive could take Israeli soldiers even deeper into Lebanon.

Despite mounting civilian deaths, President Bush held fast to support for Israel and was pressing for a U.N. resolution linking a cease-fire with a broader plan for peace in the Middle East. Staking out a different approach, European Union foreign ministers called for an "immediate cessation of hostilities" followed by efforts to agree on a sustainable cease-fire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was not in Israel's interest to agree to an immediate cease-fire because every day of fighting weakens the guerrillas.

"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."

The Israelis want to keep Hezbollah off the border so their patrols and civilians along the fence are not in danger of attack. The army also hopes to push Hezbollah far enough north so that most of the guerrillas' rockets cannot reach the Jewish state.

Until the arrival of an international force, Israel hopes to create a temporary buffer zone in a region that it occupied for 18 years until 2000. It is not yet clear that an international force will be formed, but the intention would be to bolster the Lebanese military's ability to control southern reaches of the country, where Hezbollah has been launching its rocket attacks on Israel.

The United Nations announced Tuesday that nations willing to contribute troops to such a force will meet Thursday. The meeting had been scrapped Monday after France said there was no point in talking about peacekeepers with the war continuing between Israeli troops and Hezbollah.

Israel resumed sporadic airstrikes - hitting Hezbollah 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 bombing.

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

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

But the ground battles were intense.

At nightfall Tuesday, Israeli troops were fighting Hezbollah at several points along the common border. Reporters and Arab television reported especially heavy fighting and Israeli artillery bombardment at the village of Aita al-Shaab.

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

Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said the fighting to date had killed about 300 of Hezbollah's main force of 2,000 fighters, which does not include its reserves, which aren't as well trained. "That's a very hard blow," he said.

Hezbollah has said only 46 of its fighters were killed.

Israeli jet fighters also struck deep inside Lebanese territory, hitting Hermel, 75 miles north of the Israeli border in the Bekaa Valley. 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 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 6 miles 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 closed because of damage, and repeated airstrikes have made the main Beirut-Damascus highway impassable.

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

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

At least 532 Lebanese have been killed, including 461 civilians and 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah fighters. The health minister says the toll could be as high as 750, including those still buried in rubble or missing. Fifty-four Israelis have died - 36 soldiers as well as 18 civilians killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks.