Heavy fighting as Israel pushes further into Lebanon

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The Independent Online

Heavy fighting erupted today as Israeli ground forces pushed further into Lebanon, entering another Hezbollah stronghold, and 10 Israeli soldiers were wounded, the military said.

An Israeli helicopter also crashed in northern Israel near the Lebanese border after hitting an electrical wire while making an emergency landing, causing two casualties and starting a large brush fire atop a hill, the army said.

Following an intense artillery barrage, Israeli troops took control of a hilltop in Bint Jbail, the Lebanese town where Hezbollah's leader had made a defiant speech after Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. However, troops had not taken the town itself, military officials said.

Nearly constant gunfire and explosions could be heard in southern Lebanon from the Israeli side of the border, and large plumes of grey smoke rose over the area. Hezbollah guerrillas were firing mortars into northern Israeli and anti-tank missiles at Israeli forces, the army said.

It said at least one Israeli tank was hit by incessant Hezbollah fire and that 10 soldiers were wounded in the fighting. The army denied Arab media reports that five tanks were destroyed.

Israeli tanks and armoured bulldozers were seen heading towards the battle, but two tanks also traversed the rocky hills at high speed, crossing back into Israel to carry wounded soldiers out. The wounded were taken to civilian ambulances, which sped off toward hospitals with sirens blaring.

The military said it captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, and Israeli media said attacks by Israel's air force had caused some Hezbollah casualties.

Bint Jbail, a major town, is about 1.25 miles north of the hilltop village of Maroun al-Ras, another Hezbollah centre. Over the weekend, Israeli ground troops fought for control of Maroun al-Ras, which is less than 500 yards from the border.

"Bint Jbail is a symbol of Hezbollah. Remember that (Sheikh Hassan) Nasrallah's famous speech was in Bint Jbail," said army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.

The army said it was expanding its ground operation in Lebanon, which had been limited during the two-week offensive to pinpoint operations near the border - a policy that military analysts said may well be insufficient to achieve Israel's goal of pushing Hezbollah back and destroying its ability to attack Israel.

"The scope continues to grow in recent days," Brigadier General Alon Friedman told Israel Army Radio. "We are advancing."

Friedman said the operation would continue for up to 10 days "in order to achieve the basic goals we set down," including trying to stop Hezbollah rocket fire.

Halutz, touring an army induction base in Tel Aviv, said there were still concerns that Hezbollah rockets could strike deep into Israel, hitting the city, which is Israel's financial centre.

The Israeli military said that during the past 24 hours its planes had hit more than 270 targets across Lebanon, including 21 missile launchers, more than 50 Hezbollah buildings and Hezbollah communication lines.

The army said it captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, the first it had taken any into custody during the fighting. "When the enemy surrenders, we take them prisoner. The two prisoners are located in Israel and will be held here with the aim of interrogating them," said Friedman.

Two more rockets were fired into Israel today, landing in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, rescue officials said. No casualties or damage were reported.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East today to discuss the crisis with officials. She was to meet tonight with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and tomorrow with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yesterday 95 rockets were fired into Israel, killing two people in the city of Haifa, the military said.

Israel launched its operation in Lebanon after Hezbollah guerrillas killed three soldiers and captured two others in a cross-border raid on July 12.

Before Israel's capture of two of its fighters, Hezbollah leaders had demanded that Israel release Palestinian and Hezbollah prisoners to win freedom for the two captured Israeli soldiers. Israel has ruled out talks, demanding the unconditional return of its soldiers, but it has negotiated such exchanges in the past.

At least 381 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah fighters, according to security officials. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have fled their homes.

Israel's death toll stands at 37, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 20 soldiers killed in the fighting. Sixty-eight soldiers have been wounded, and 255 civilians injured by rocket fire, officials said.

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