- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

BEIRUT — Israeli forces suffered two dead and 20 wounded yesterday in a fierce battle for control of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah-controlled border town nicknamed the “capital of the resistance” for its legendary support of the anti-Israeli militia.

Both sides continued their exchange of rocket fire across the border for a 13th day, although Israel halted its air strikes on Beirut during a surprise visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Relief groups began moving convoys of food and medicine on the treacherous journey from Beirut to southern towns devastated by mortars and missiles.

Israeli forces secured one hilltop in Bint Jbail after daylong fighting but were unable to dislodge Hezbollah from the rest of the town of 30,000, military officials told the Associated Press. Many residents had fled, but some were crowded into schools and mosques.

Hezbollah said it hit five Israeli tanks during the fight for the town, the scene of the militia’s first victory rally after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Although Israel has staged several raids on Hezbollah positions in the last week, the only populated area it has captured and held is the border village of Maroun al-Ras.

Israel, which captured two Hezbollah fighters at Bint Jbail, also acknowledged that two soldiers were killed elsewhere in southern Lebanon when a helicopter hit an electrical wire and crashed.

Hundreds of foreigners escaped the fighting onto a Greek ferry at the southern coastal city of Tyre, but the AP quoted German official Erik Rattat saying 300 Americans and 100 Europeans were thought trapped in villages and did not appear to have reached the ship.

The State Department said about 11,700 Americans have left the country, most of them by sea to Cyprus.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, told a Lebanese newspaper yesterday that his organization sought an immediate cease-fire and would accept the Lebanese government as its negotiator.

It was a dramatic change of tone for the Hezbollah leader, who 10 days ago said in an audiotape addressed to Israel: “You wanted an open war, and we are ready for an open war.”

Sheik Nasrallah, who is in hiding after attacks on his home and headquarters, offered no details. But Lebanese officials said the militant Shi’ite group still insisted that any deal include a prisoner exchange, the payment of reparations and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the contested Shebaa Farms region — conditions Israel is unlikely to accept.

Casualties from the exchange of rocket fire were lighter than in past days after many civilians have moved away from the border. Thirteen persons were slightly wounded in Israel, where 39 have been killed, including 22 soldiers. The Lebanese death toll stands at almost 400, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah militants.

In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, streets were eerily silent during the pause in Israeli shelling. Only a handful of young men — most of them on the small motor scooters favored by Hezbollah — patrolled the Bourj al-Barajneh neighborhood, where Israel said it dropped 23 tons of bombs on a Hezbollah bunker last week.

“Everyone is gone, it is just us, protecting these homes from thieves,” said a young Lebanese man who gave his name only as Bob.

The conflict is taking an extreme toll on a country that has only recently recovered from a debilitating civil war. More than a quarter of the population has been displaced, according to a government minister, while Israeli bombs have destroyed infrastructure ranging from bridges to cell-phone towers to the largest civilian airport.

Finance Minister Jihad Azour, speaking to a small group of reporters, described the Israeli operation as “a massive war against our civilians and our infrastructure.”

“We are urgently seeking the help of the U.N., the Red Cross and others to deliver aid through safe corridors,” he said.

The United Nations and other agencies have begun moving emergency shelter and supplies into Lebanon and will soon be moving it south, where as many as a half-million people have been displaced by Israeli bombardments and now soldiers.

An Italian warship and a French ferry, both laden with supplies, reached the Beirut port yesterday after Israel lifted its blockade to permit the delivery relief efforts.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in Geneva that his agency will put more than 500 tons of relief supplies along the Syria-Lebanon border but cannot deliver it to hard-hit areas without Israeli assurances of a humanitarian corridor.

“The plight of the displaced in Lebanon is growing more difficult by the hour, and it’s crucial that we get the humanitarian pipeline flowing now,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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