- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

4:07 p.m.

BEIRUT — Israeli troops clashed with Hezbollah guerrillas on the Lebanese side of the border today, while Lebanon’s prime minister reported a death toll of 300 and demanded compensation from Israel for the “unimaginable losses” to the nation’s infrastructure.

As fighting entered its second week, Israeli warplanes flattened houses in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah rockets made their first hit near Christian holy sites in Israel: Two rockets hit Nazareth — the biblical hometown of Jesus — killing two brothers ages 3 and 9 as they played outside, bringing the Israeli death toll to 29. At least 18 others were wounded in the attack.

Washington said it won’t push Israel toward a fast cease-fire in the fighting, started July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers. The latest fighting dealt a blow to efforts to send international peacekeepers to bolster the 2,000-member U.N. force in southern Lebanon.

As the conflict intensified, more than 1,000 Americans were evacuated from Beirut’s port aboard a luxury cruise liner, the first large pullout by the United States after complaints of delays. European nations three days ago sent ships to evacuate thousands. Two U.S. Chinook helicopters also took 200 Americans to Cyprus.

Addressing foreign ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora gave the first official death toll in the conflict, saying that another 1,000 have been wounded and half a million displaced.

He made an urgent appeal for an end to the fighting, saying Lebanon “has been torn to shreds.”

In a swipe particularly at the United States, Mr. Saniora asked: “Is this what the international community calls self-defense? Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?”

The International Red Cross, along with the U.N. children’s and health agencies, expressed serious concern about civilian casualties and health risks from the violence.

Hezbollah claimed to have “repelled” Israeli forces near the coastal border town of Naqoura, and the Israeli army said two of its soldiers were killed and nine were wounded in the battle. Hezbollah said one guerrilla was killed.

Israeli bombers, previously focusing on Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, hit a Christian suburb on the eastern side of the capital for the first time. The target was a truck-mounted machine used to drill for water that could have been mistaken for a missile launcher. The vehicle was destroyed, but nobody was hurt.

Israel, which has limited itself mainly to attacks from the air and sea, had been reluctant to send in ground troops because Hezbollah is far more familiar with the terrain and because of memories of Israel’s ill-fated 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000.

Israel said its air strikes had destroyed about half of Hezbollah’s arsenal. “It will take us time to destroy what is left,” Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, a senior army commander, told Israeli Army Radio.

On another front, Israeli forces killed six Palestinians after tanks moved into the Mughazi refugee camp in central Gaza, the latest incursion in Israel’s three-week military push in the seaside territory. In the West Bank city of Nablus, at least three Palestinians were killed when the army surrounded a prison where militants apparently were hiding, Palestinian officials said.

Israel began large-scale operations in Gaza on June 28, three days after Hamas-linked militants tunneled under the border and attacked an Israeli army base, killing two soldiers and capturing a third.

Despite international appeals, the Bush administration has refused to press Israel for a prompt end to its campaign against Hezbollah. Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to drum up support for what she called a cease-fire of “lasting value” — one that envisions the Lebanese army taking over the south, where guerrillas have waged a cross-border war against Israel for years.

Miss Rice will discuss the Mideast tomorrow evening in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, a U.N. official said.

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