Fighting rages on in southern Lebanon

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 21-Jul-06 | Author: Jad Mouawad and Steven Erlange| Source: International Herald Tribune

A man moved through the rubble of a southern suburb of Beirut Thursday after it was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Hezbollah, the target of the attacks, escorted journalists on a tour of the area, one of its strongholds.
BEIRUT U.S. marines landed in Beirut on Thursday for the first time in more than 20 years to help evacuate Americans from Lebanon, as Israeli officials suggested that their ground troops might take a more active role in combating Hezbollah and there were more strong condemnations of Israel's massive use of force in Lebanon.

As the fighting continued for a ninth day, there were more fierce clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters just across the border in Lebanon. Israeli troops were trying to destroy Hezbollah outposts and storage facilities, Israeli Army officials said.

Two Israeli soldiers and a Hezbollah fighter were killed late Wednesday as Israel discovered a warren of storage rooms, bunkers and tunnels just north of Avivim, near Maroun al-Ras. On Thursday evening, there were reports that three Israeli soldiers had been killed and six had been wounded in further fierce clashes in the same area and north of the Israeli town of Zarit. An unknown number of Hezbollah fighters were believed to have been killed.

The Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, visiting northern towns hit by Hezbollah rockets, hinted at a broader ground operation. "We have no intention of occupying Lebanon, but we also have no intention of retreating from any military measures needed," he said. "Hezbollah must not think that we would recoil from using all kinds of military measures against it."

Peretz continued: "You can mark one thing down: Hezbollah flags will not hang over the fences of Israel."

At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned the Israeli operation as an "excessive use of force." Russia, which has taken fierce military action against rebels in Chechnya, also sharply criticized Israel, with the Foreign Ministry calling Israel's actions in Lebanon "far beyond the boundaries of an anti-terrorist operation" and calling for a cease-fire.

At the White House, President George W. Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow, said: "I'm not sure at this juncture we're going to step in and put up a stop sign," although he called on Israel to "practice restraint" and said that Bush was "very much concerned" about a growing humanitarian crisis in southern Lebanon.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was arranging a trip to Asia and the Middle East that could have her visiting the region as early as next week.

Diplomats are investigating the idea of a more robust international force under UN auspices but more likely made up of European troops.

A senior Israeli military officer said that significant ground activity was already taking place inside Lebanon, including the deployment of Israeli commandos.

"But we will do whatever and whenever and however necessary to achieve our ultimate goals, and a ground operation is one component," the officer said. "You know we're trying to reshape the conditions on the border, making sure we no longer face Hezbollah outposts a couple of meters away from us with a lot of weapons aimed at us."

Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defense minister, told Israeli television: "We have no choice but go in and physically clean up Hezbollah posts on the ground. The air force can't do that. So when we talk about a ground operation, the intention is not necessarily a massive incursion but more pinpoint operations."

Israel continued its massive air attacks on Hezbollah positions. It dropped leaflets in southern Lebanese villages, informed local leaders and broadcast warnings in Arabic to residents to move north of the Litani River if their villages contained Hezbollah assets or rockets. The leaflets gave no deadline. Israel dropped similar leaflets in Gaza, possibly foreshadowing more attacks on populated areas where Israel believes Qassam rockets are stored.

The air attacks on Thursday also hit Beirut's southern suburbs, following a massive attack Wednesday night by Israeli jets. They used special burrowing bombs to try to penetrate a bunker allegedly used by senior Hezbollah officials, including its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah said no one was hurt in the bombing.

An Israeli official confirmed that efforts to decapitate the Hezbollah leadership were continuing, but refused to comment on reports that Israeli commandos were in Lebanon trying to kill Nasrallah and other leaders.

Hezbollah said its military capacity was largely undiminished.

Despite the continuous shelling of the Hezbollah strongholds of Beirut, the militia remains very much in control there, barring access to outsiders.

On Thursday, the militia led a group of reporters for a tour of the area. Buildings as high as 12 or 15 stories had collapsed, some still smoking.

According to Lebanese reports, four civilians were killed in a strike on a car in the coastal city of Tyre. Israeli jets also raided a detention center Thursday in the town of Khiam in southern Lebanon, local television reported. The prison, formerly run by Israel's Lebanese militia allies during its occupation of the region, was destroyed.

About 35 rockets hit Israel by Thursday evening, the army said, a sharp drop from 150 the day before.

In Beirut, the landing of a small force of 40 U.S. marines marked the first time American military personnel had been deployed in Lebanon since their withdrawal after a Hezbollah suicide bomb attack killed 241 marines in 1983.

Marine officials said that a small number of marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit landed Thursday morning on a beach north of Beirut, near shorefront belonging to the U.S. Embassy. They helped American citizens board a landing craft that ferried them to the amphibious assault ship Nashville stationed offshore.

In Gaza, Israelis killed at least three Palestinians and wounded six in fighting around the Mughazi refugee camp. An airstrike on the same refugee camp killed one fighter and wounded eight more. One of the dead was a Palestinian girl, 10, who had been wounded in an airstrike on Wednesday, when nine Palestinians, eight of them militants, were killed, The Associated Press reported.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces continued to surround the Mukata compound in Nablus, where Palestinians wanted by Israel have been taking refuge since Wednesday. Fifteen wanted men gave themselves up but at least 10 remained inside.

The Lebanese government said that it had so far sheltered as many as 120,000 refugees, mostly in public and private schools. It was considering setting up tents and temporary barracks for the refugees in parks and sports fields. The United Nations estimated that 500,000 people had been displaced so far.

"The losses are immeasurable," said Nayla Moawad, the minister for social affairs. Moawad blamed Syria for sparking the crisis, saying that she was expressing her personal opinion. "The decision of the Hezbollah operation was not taken in Lebanon," she said. "Lebanon was taken hostage, a mailbox of other people's interests. It has been taken in Damascus, probably with an Iranian coordination."

Steven Erlanger reported from Jerusalem.