BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israeli troops clashed with Hezbollah guerrillas on the Lebanese side of the border Wednesday, while warplanes flattened 20 buildings and killed at least 19 people, officials said, as fighting between the two sides entered its second week.
Hundreds of Americans boarded a luxury ship at Beirut’s port that was to carry them from the country, with many complaining about the slow pace of the U.S. evacuation effort. Europeans and Lebanese with foreign passports already have fled by the thousands.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, meanwhile, reported that the Islamic militant group struck an Israeli air base 30 miles from the Lebanese border. It gave no details and Israeli officials would not comment on the record, but that distance would make it the deepest strike by Hezbollah into northern
Israel in more than a week of fighting.
Israeli bombers, which had been focusing on Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, also hit a Christian suburb on the eastern side of the capital for the first time. The target was a truck-mounted machine that was used to drill for water but could have been mistaken for a missile launcher. The vehicle was destroyed, but nobody was hurt in that attack.
Military officials said Israeli troops crossed the border in search of tunnels and weapons. Hezbollah claimed to have “repelled” Israeli forces near the coastal border town of Naqoura. Casualties were reported on both sides.
The Israeli army confirmed there were clashes with Hezbollah in the border area and that some Israelis had suffered casualties. The army would not elaborate. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television channel reported that two Israeli soldiers had been killed and three wounded, but that could not be confirmed.
Israel, which has mainly limited itself to attacks from the air and sea, had been reluctant to send in ground troops because Hezbollah is far more familiar with the terrain and because of memories of Israel’s ill-fated 18-year occupation of south Lebanon that ended in 2000.
The fighting dealt a blow to diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire and to send a new international force to bolster the 2,000-member U.N. force in south Lebanon appeared stalled.
Israel declared Tuesday it was ready to fight Hezbollah guerrillas for several more weeks, raising doubts about international efforts to broker an immediate cease-fire. The fighting has killed nearly 300 people and displaced 500,000.
“It will take us time to destroy what is left,” Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, a senior army commander, told Israeli Army Radio on Wednesday.
Israel stressed it did not plan to target Hezbollah’s main sponsors,
Syria, during the current fighting.
“We will leave Iran to the world community, and Syria as well,” Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Army Radio. “It’s very important to understand that we are not instilling world order.”
The Israeli airstrikes late Tuesday and early Wednesday killed at least 19 people, bringing to 245 the number of people killed in Lebanon since the fighting began on July 12, when Hezbollah guerrillas raided an Israeli border outpost and kidnapped two soldiers. The figures were provided by the police control center, which collates casualty figures.
Twenty-five Israelis also have been killed in Israel in the past eight days as Hezbollah fired rockets across the border.
The U.N. children’s and health agencies said Wednesday they were concerned about civilian casualties and new health risks because of escalating violence in Lebanon and Israel.
“Civilian deaths include dozens of children, with many more injured,” the joint statement said. “The psychological impact is serious as people, including children, have witnessed the death or injury of loved ones and destruction of their homes and communities,”
UNICEF and the
World Health Organization said.
Movement of medical supplies and ambulances to affected areas is seriously limited, the statement added.
Five people were killed when a missile struck a neighborhood in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, police and hospital officials said. The target was a commercial office of a firm belonging to Hezbollah, but those killed were residents.
In the village of Srifa, near Tyre in southern Lebanon, the airstrikes flattened 15 houses. The village’s headman, Hussein Kamaledine, said 25 to 30 people lived in the houses, but it was not known if they were at home at the time. Many people have fled southern Lebanon.
“This is a real massacre,” Kamaledine told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV as fire engines extinguished the blaze and rescue workers searched for survivors.
In the southern village of Ghaziyeh, one person was killed and two were wounded when a missile struck a nearby building that housed a Hezbollah-affiliated social institution.
In the eastern Bekaa Valley, four people were killed and three were wounded in an air raid on the village of Loussi, police said.
The planes also hit Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, causing one explosion that reverberated across the city much more loudly than any previous impact.
More Israeli missiles landed in two towns outside Beirut — Chuweifat and Hadath. One person was killed at the Galerie Semaan junction, near Hadath, police said.
Israeli military officials said that for several days small numbers of soldiers have been going in and out of south Lebanon in search of Hezbollah bases and weapons. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, would not give the number of troops involved or their location.
Israel’s ambassador to the
United Nations, Dan Gillerman, said the incursion was not large scale.
“This is an operation which is very measured, very local,” Gillerman told CNN. “This is no way an invasion of Lebanon. This is no way the beginning of any kind of occupation of Lebanon.”
Last week, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed to defeat any Israeli invasion, saying his guerrillas were “longing” to engage their opponents in ground battles.
“Any ground invasion will be good news for the resistance because it will bring us closer to victory and humiliating the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said.
Western nations have proposed the stronger international force as part of a possible cease-fire agreement, and U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan said Tuesday that a new force must be “considerably” larger and better armed than the current force, which is viewed as weak and ineffectual.
Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice also called for the introduction of a strong peacekeeping operation.