- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

1:21 p.m.

BOURJ AL-MULOUK, Lebanon — Heavy ground fighting raged today near a border village, and Israel resumed frequent air strikes after it decided, in a major expansion of its offensive, to send thousands more troops deeper into Lebanon.

The soldiers will go as far as the Litani River, 18 miles from the Israeli border, to clear out Hezbollah fighters and hold the territory until a multinational force is deployed there, senior Israeli officials said today.

The resumption of the Israeli air campaign against Hezbollah strongholds and supply routes came despite an earlier pledge to suspend such attacks for another day. That 48-hour suspension was announced after the world expressed outrage over the killing of 56 Lebanese — mostly women and children — in a weekend Israeli bombing.

Today, warplanes pounded Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon and struck Hezbollah strongholds deep inside the country.

Intense gun battles also were reported in several southern Lebanese villages, and Hezbollah said four of its fighters were killed. The guerrilla group claimed 35 Israeli soldiers had been killed or wounded in the fighting, but Israel had no immediate public comment.

The heaviest fighting centered on the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab. Arab satellite channels carried live pictures as Israeli forces unleashed a relentless bombardment of artillery shells on the town, from which Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border on July 12 and captured two Israeli soldiers, sparking the crisis.

Israel made the decision to expand the ground offensive at a meeting late yesterday of its Security Cabinet.

Up to now, several thousand soldiers had been engaged, fighting house-to-house battles with hundreds of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanese towns and villages close to the border. Last week, the Cabinet called up about 30,000 reserve soldiers, many of whom reported to their bases earlier this week to begin training.

Defense officials said they expected thousands more soldiers to be sent to Lebanon.

“We have reached the stage where we have to expand the operation,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said without giving the dimensions of the next phase.

The Litani meanders through southern Lebanon and at some points is as far as 18 miles from the Israeli-Lebanese border. A 1978 incursion by Israel into Lebanon to push back Palestinian guerrillas was named after the river.

Justice Minister Haim Ramon, a member of the Security Cabinet, said he hoped the push would be completed in seven to 10 days to create the conditions for a multinational force to deploy there. Another Cabinet minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said he expected the offensive to take up to 14 days.

Mr. Peretz said Israel would target vehicles carrying weapons from Syria to Lebanon but reiterated that Israel was not trying to draw Syria into the war.

Syrian President Bashar Assad called on his army yesterday to increase readiness to cope with “regional challenges.” Travelers from Syria have reported that some reservists have been called up for military duty — a sign Syria is concerned the fighting in Lebanon could spill over.

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