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Archive for Sunday, July 23, 2006

Israeli soldiers roll into southern Lebanon

July 23, 2006

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

Early today, warplanes for the first time hit inside the port city of Sidon, currently swollen with refugees, destroying a religious complex that the Israeli military said was used by Hezbollah. Hospital 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. Warplanes also hit targets in eastern Bekaa Valley, firing missiles in the cities of Hermel and Baalbek, witnesses said. There was no immediate word on casualties in either strike.

A couple carrying some of their salvaged belongings walk through a destroyed street Saturday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon. After more than a week of sustained Israeli airstrikes on the previously densely populated, Hezbollah-controlled area of the capital, few civilians remain, though some ventured back Saturday to salvage belongings.

A couple carrying some of their salvaged belongings walk through a destroyed street Saturday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon. After more than a week of sustained Israeli airstrikes on the previously densely populated, Hezbollah-controlled area of the capital, few civilians remain, though some ventured back Saturday to salvage belongings.

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. But a ground offensive carries greater risks to Israel, which already has lost 18 soldiers in the recent fighting. It also threatens to exacerbate already trying conditions for Lebanese civilians in the area.

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. An Israeli radio station warned residents of 13 villages to flee north by Saturday afternoon. The villages form a corridor about 4 miles wide and 11 miles deep.

With Lebanese fearing an escalation in the battle, international officials worked to end the conflict.

Italy, which has been trying to mediate an end to the fighting, said it would hold a conference Wednesday to work out the basis for a truce agreement. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed a beefed-up U.N. force along the Lebanese border, but Israel has called for the Lebanese army to take control of the area.

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.

"I'm afraid of a major humanitarian disaster," he told CNN.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said it would take more than $100 million to help the displaced. He said he would make an appeal "urging, begging" the international community for contributions.

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. It remained unclear how that aid would get to the isolated towns and villages where the fighting has been centered.

Israel has attacked mostly with airstrikes, but small units have crossed the border in recent days and fought with Hezbollah fighters.

A far larger force of about 2,000 troops entered the area Saturday trying to root out Hezbollah bunkers and destroy hidden rocket launchers.

The troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, raced past a U.N. outpost and headed into Maroun al-Ras. Gunfire could be heard coming from the village, and artillery batteries in Israel also fired into the area.

"The forces have completed, more or less, their control of the area of the village, Maroun al-Ras, and made lots of hits against terrorists," said Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of Israel's ground forces. "It was a difficult fight that continued for not a short time."

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