Israel sends 6,000 troops into Lebanon as war rages

Click to follow

Six Israeli army brigades - up to around 6,000 troops - were in southern Lebanon last night as the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the army was "winning the battle" in its 21-day offensive against Hizbollah.

Mr Olmert's assertion, which appeared to be preparing Israelis for a possible end to the conflict, came as three divisions of reservists neared the end of their training if needed to reinforce armoured infantry and engineering units seeking to push Hizbollah back from the border. The disclosure of the level of forces in southern Lebanon came after a day of heavy fighting in which three soldiers were killed in fire around the village of Aita al-Shab in the central border area.

Israel's Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, appeared to presage the start of the expanded ground operation, approved by the security cabinet on Monday night. He said Israel would resume full air strikes against Hizbollah from 1am today - at the end of the 48-hour pause, called after the civilian deaths in the bombing of an apartment building in Qana on Sunday. Mr Ramon told Channel Ten television that Hizbollah was at "breaking point" and added that an expanded ground offensive would bring victory. "With a little patience and a lot of determination ... we shall win."

The Israel Defence Forces declined to confirm or deny that troops had been landed by helicopter in the Eastern Lebanon city of Baalbek. Hizbollah claimed that commandos were trapped inside a hospital fighting with its own forces.

But while an escalation of operations seemed probable over the next 48 hours, the tone of Mr Olmert's speech in Tel Aviv was seen by some commentators as indicating that he accepted the timetable for such an expanded operation was now finite. "This threat will not be what it was. Never will they be able to threaten this people they fired missiles at."

Brig-General Shuki Sachar told reporters in Safed that "between 200 and 300" guerrillas had been killed. INSERT He indicated that Israeli forces had reached the Litani river at its nearest point to Israel and added that some unspecified units -presumed to be special forces-were operating deep inside Lebanon.

Mr Olmert appeared to go further than the previous night in seeking to modify expectations of the outcome by saying that success "cannot be measured by the number or range of the rockets fired at us". He said he had never promised that the offensive would destroy all Hizbollah's missiles, but said the threat from the Shia group had been reduced.

Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, acknowledged for the first time that the bombing in Qana had limited Israel's room for manoeuvre, and the amount of European support Israel was receiving for its military campaign. This lay behind the "problematic" French and Russian stances towards the Israeli operation.

But Ms Livni said it was important for Israel not to deviate from the implementation of UN resolution 1559, which prescribes the disarmament of Hizbollah. Israel says that agreement to a multinational force in Lebanon is necessary before any ceasefire.

Sirens warning of rocket attacks sounded across northern Israel last night, and there were reports of rockets landing in open areas after two days in which only two or three Katyushas had been fired by Hizbollah. But there were mortar attacks near where forces were concentrated, and in Metulla early yesterday and last night Israeli forces are active from east of Metulla to Marwaheen in the west, reportedly reaching three to six kilometres inside Lebanese territory. Brig Sachar said that the aim was to control territory in the fight against Hizbollah rather than to "conquer " towns and villages.

Day 21

* Israel sends up to 6,000 troops into southern Lebanon.

* Fierce fighting breaks out around the Lebanese villages of Aita al-Shaab, Adaisse and Taibeh, while artillery pounds Deir Mimas and Kfar Kila. Israel confirms three of its soldiers killed in action.

* Three Lebanese civilians killed and three hurt in air attack on southern town of Lweizeh.

* A total of 617 Lebanese are confirmed dead since fighting began. Fifty-one Israelis confirmed dead. Total of 907,000 Lebanese and up to 330,000 Israelis confirmed displaced.

* Major Israeli military operation begins in Bekaa Valley.