Tanks extend Israel's reach miles inside Lebanese territory

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Israeli tanks and troops were operating several miles inside southern Lebanon yesterday as many thousands more Lebanese civilians started to flee north after warnings from Israel to leave the south of the country.

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN told CNN he was "afraid of a major humanitarian disaster" in Lebanon, and added that a ground invasion would spell "a very serious escalation of the war". Meanwhile, the United States was reported to have rushed forward an order of precision-guided bombs to Israel for use in its 10-day-old conflict with Hizbollah.

While stopping well short ­ so far ­ of the major ground offensive called for by some in the Israeli political right, the widened ground operation appeared to mark the early stages of an effort to secure a mile-wide " sterile" buffer zone on the Lebanese border with Israel. UN peacekeepers on the border said Israeli forces withdrew on Friday night from the village of Marwaheen, just inside Lebanon, but were still operating further east in the village of Maroun al-Ras, near where six soldiers were killed after encountering heavy resistance from Hizbollah forces last week. The Israeli army said last night it had taken control of the village.

General Ido Nehushtan, the Israel Defence Force's policy and planning chief, said last night the expanding "pinpoint" operations of the past days were to "change the reality" on the border. This included preventing the launching of rockets and repeats of the raid in which two soldiers were abducted and which triggered the operation 11 days ago. He said the army had found rockets and anti-tank missiles, as well as well-hidden bunkers and tunnels invisible from the air. He added that Hizbollah ­ while it had suffered some "good blows" ­ retained a capability, for now, to launch rockets at northern Israel.

The bombardment has killed at least 372 people, most of whom were civilians. The Israelis also struck near Tyre and destroyed five trucks. As the army reported 80 Hizbollah rockets hitting areas across northern Israel, Lebanese witnesses reported seeing rockets fired from around the town of Marjayoun.

The British Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, who is due to visit Israel today, criticised its massive bombardment of Lebanon. Saying he backed Israel's right to respond to Hizbollah, he added: "These have not been surgical strikes. It's very, very difficult to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used. You know, if they're chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation." He said he "hoped" the US was aware of the damage to Lebanon's infrastructure. Mr Annan said the conflict had displaced at least 700,000 Lebanese so far.

Across the south, people jammed the roads in an attempt to heed the leafleted warnings to seek safety north of the Litani river. But an Israeli air strike hit one of the few remaining crossings over the river early yesterday, trapping hundreds on the southern bank for several hours.

There was confusion last night over declarations by Palestinian officials that militant groups had called a ceasefire on the other of Israel's two military fronts in Gaza.

The main armed groups denied the reports which came after talks following incursions which have claimed the lives of dozens of Palestinians, including four people on Friday.