Israeli forces push north

Ground war enters Lebanese villages

July 23, 2006|By CHRISTINE SPOLAR | CHRISTINE SPOLAR,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TEL AVIV -- Israeli ground forces fought Hezbollah in the hills and shadows of the Lebanese countryside yesterday, with troops and tanks pushing into border villages where the Shiite militia has operated freely for years, according to military and media reports.

By nightfall, Israeli military officials said the army, as it expanded a ground war, controlled Maroun al-Ras, a Hezbollah stronghold. Gunbattles between Israeli and Hezbollah forces continued at night, but soldiers secured a large weapons cache in the hilltop village, an army spokesman said.

This new phase of combat, described by Israeli generals as a series of intensive, selective strikes to end Hezbollah's hold over southern Lebanon, began at midmorning as tanks and bulldozers churned over stony fields and hundreds of troops moved into position.

As many as 2,000 soldiers were deployed into Lebanon, focusing on Maroun al-Ras and entering other villages; it was unclear how many stayed in or returned to Israel within the same day.

The incursion came 11 days into what has been largely an aerial assault by Israeli forces that began in retaliation for the capture of two soldiers by Hezbollah fighters more than a week ago.

The bombing campaign has ravaged much of Lebanon's infrastructure, killed more than 370 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and sparked an exodus of tens of thousands from the tiny coastal country.

Early today, warplanes for the first time hit inside the port city of Sidon, currently swollen with refugees, destroying a religious complex that the Israeli military said was used by Hezbollah, the Associated Press reported. Hospital officials said four people were wounded.

A series of large explosions reverberated through Beirut early today as Israeli aircraft again pounded Hezbollah's stronghold in the south. Warplanes also hit targets in 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 number of displaced people soared yesterday as Israel, with leaflets and broadcast announcements, warned residents in a stretch of southern Lebanese communities that they should leave before 7 p.m. yesterday to avoid intense raids by army units. The area targeted by Israeli reaches 20 miles inside Lebanon, affecting about 400,000 people.

As Israeli troops moved overland and warplanes attacked two television towers in east Beirut and northern Lebanon, Hezbollah assaults on Israel came from the sky. More than 120 rockets were lobbed into several cities, among them the northern Israeli towns of Safed, Nahariya, Carmiel and Kiryat Shmona. Seventeen people were injured, according to police and military reports.

Hezbollah gunmen mounted a fierce defense in Maroun al-Ras, but some military analysts said the militants had probably calculated their resistance. The guerrilla force, which has developed a honeycomb of defenses in caves and bunkers, may have dispersed to fight another day.

Hezbollah, believed to have a small force of hundreds of highly trained fighters, has been known to rely on a network of residents, supposedly numbering in the thousands, to help in their defense.

According to news reports, there was no sign of the Lebanese army, which for years had ceded control of the south to the irregular forces of Hezbollah.

Other attacks by the Israelis also went unchallenged by the Lebanese army. The attacks on the television towers blacked out several networks, including Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV. With an eye to public sentiment - and a chorus of criticism by some Western and Muslim countries over Israel's broad assault - Israel made some efforts yesterday to relieve the civilian trauma in Lebanon, easing its naval blockade and opening ports to allow shiploads of aid to arrive.

Although Israelis have been overwhelmingly supportive of the military action in Lebanon, about 1,000 took part in an anti-war protest through the streets of Tel Aviv yesterday, The New York Times reported.

"No to war, yes to peace," chanted the demonstrators, who were a mix of Jewish and Arab Israelis.

A Greek warship with 22 tons of humanitarian supplies arrived Friday in Beirut, and another came in yesterday with 14 more tons of supplies, the Greek Foreign Ministry said. An Italian relief ship was expected today.

Christine Spolar writes for the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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