- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER — Israeli tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers barreled over the Lebanese border yesterday and 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 Sidon, destroying a religious complex that the Israeli military said was used by Hezbollah. Hospital officials said four persons 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 the eastern Bekaa Valley, firing missiles in the cities of Hermel and Baalbek, witnesses said. There was no immediate word on casualties in either strike.

The growing use of ground forces, 11 days into the fighting, signaled Israeli recognition that air strikes alone were not enough to force Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon.

But a ground offensive carries greater risks to Israel, which 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 told civilians in southern Lebanon to evacuate to the other side of the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border.

An Israeli radio station that broadcasts to southern Lebanon warned residents of 13 villages to flee north by yesterday afternoon.

The villages form a corridor about 4 miles wide and 11 miles deep.

Israel has attacked mostly with air strikes, 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 yesterday, 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.”

Dozens of Hezbollah fighters were injured or killed in the battle, Gen. Gantz said. Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed yesterday, bringing the total number of acknowledged Hezbollah fighters killed to eight. Israel accuses the group of vastly underreporting its casualties.

The village was strategically important because it overlooked an area where Hezbollah had command posts, Gen. Gantz said. The forces seized a cache of weapons and rockets in a village mosque, he added. The village is thought to be a launching point for the rocket attacks on northern Israel.

At one point, a half-ton bomb was dropped on a Hezbollah outpost, about 500 yards from the border and near the village. Other positions were bombarded by Israeli gunboats off the coast.

About 30 residents took refuge at the U.N. observers post. Nearly the entire remaining population of the village — which numbered about 2,300 before the crisis broke out — was thought to have fled, Lebanese security officials said.

Some of the invading forces returned to Israel during the day. U.N. peacekeepers and witnesses said Israel also briefly held the nearby village of Marwaheen before pulling back.

About 35,000 fleeing Lebanese filled Sidon as they searched for a place to stay or a way to get farther north.

“I’m afraid a disaster is going to happen with all these refugees. There’s no aid, not from other nations, not from Lebanon,” Mayor Abdul-Rahman al-Bizri said.

More than 200,000 Lebanese fled to Syria, according to the Syrian Red Crescent.

The Israeli army said it wanted to destroy all Hezbollah infrastructure in an area between a half mile and two miles from the border, but it had no intention of going deeper into Lebanon.

“We really want to knock out Hezbollah in this area,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. “We want to wipe them out, and we don’t intend for them to ever be there again.”

A senior Israeli military official confirmed that Israel did not plan to reoccupy southern Lebanon as it did from 1982 to 2000 to create a buffer zone to protect northern Israel.

Israel’s current offensive began July 12, when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers.

Israeli air strikes yesterday blasted communications- and television-transmission towers in the central and northern Lebanese mountains, knocking the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. off the air and killing one person at the station.

The death toll in Lebanon rose to at least 372, Lebanese authorities said.

Over the past 11 days, Hezbollah has launched nearly 1,000 rockets into Israel, killing 15 civilians and sending hundreds of thousands of others fleeing into bunkers. At least 132 rockets landed in Israel yesterday, wounding 20 persons, three seriously, rescue officials said.

More than 400,000 people live south of the Litani. Though tens of thousands have left, many are thought still there, trapped by the damaged roads or by fear of being caught in an air strike.

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