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New fighting breaks out

By
July 20, 2006

A large fight between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas broke out
Thursday evening on the Lebanese side of the border, the Israeli army said,
adding that its troops suffered casualties but did not elaborate. Hezbollah’s
Al-Manar television said three Israeli soldiers were killed and 10 wounded in
fighting.

The forces crossed the border as part of ongoing operations to push back
Hezbollah guerrillas who have continued firing rockets into northern Israel
despite more than a week of massive bombardment.

Israel, meanwhile, hinted at a full-scale invasion. It warned residents to
flee a nearly 20-mile swath of south Lebanon along the border. Its warplanes
also launched new airstrikes on Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah
stronghold, shortly after daybreak, followed by strikes in the guerrillas’
heartland in the south and eastern Bekaa Valley.

The planes also bombed large parts of the south, from which Hezbollah
guerrillas fired more rockets into Israel. On Wednesday, Israeli bombings killed
as many as 70 people, according to Lebanese television, making it the deadliest
day since the fighting began July 12.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council that “hostilities
must stop” between Israel and Hezbollah. He also condemned Israel’s “excessive
use of force” in Lebanon.

“There are serious obstacles to reaching a cease-fire or even to diminishing
the violence quickly,” Annan said.

The fighting had triggered a humanitarian crisis, he added. The U.N.
estimated that about a half-million have been displaced in Lebanon, with 130,000
fleeing to Syria and about 45,000 believed to be in need of assistance.

Russia sharply criticized Israel’s onslaught, now in its ninth day, sparked
when Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers. Moscow said Israel’s
actions have gone “far beyond the boundaries of an anti-terrorist
operation.”

At least 306 people have been killed in Lebanon since Israel’s campaign
began, according to Lebanese officials. At least 29 Israelis have been killed,
including 14 soldiers.

About 40 U.S. Marines landed in Beirut to help Americans onto the USS
Nashville, which will carry 1,200 evacuees bound for Cyprus in the second mass
U.S. exodus from Lebanon. It was the first U.S. military deployment in Lebanon
in 22 years.

Thousands of Europeans also fled on ships — continuing one of the largest
evacuation operations since World War II. An estimated 13,000 foreign nationals
have been evacuated.

More than 600 relatives of U.N. peacekeepers and other foreigners were
evacuated by ship from the southern port of Tyre, a region that has been pounded
for days by Israeli warplanes and gunboats.

Hezbollah guerrillas fired 25 rockets into Israel on Thursday. Although they
caused no casualties, the continued rocket barrage raised the question of
whether Israeli air power alone can suppress them.

The guerrillas have been fighting back hard on the ground, wounding three
Israeli soldiers. An Israeli unit sent in to ambush Hezbollah guerrillas also
had a fierce gunbattle with a cell of militants.

In another clash, just across the border from the Israeli town of Avivim,
guerrillas fired a missile at an Israeli tank, seriously wounding a soldier.
Hezbollah said its guerrillas destroyed two tanks trying to enter the Lebanese
border village of Maroun al-Ras, across from Avivim.

Israel has mainly limited itself to attacks from the air and sea, reluctant
to send in ground troops on terrain dominated by Hezbollah.

But an Israeli army spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a
full-scale invasion. Israel broadcast warnings Wednesday into south Lebanon,
telling civilians to leave — a possible prelude to a larger ground
operation.

In the Gaza Strip, where Israel has been fighting for three weeks after one
of its soldiers was captured, Israeli forces killed three people and wounded six
Thursday. Nine people — eight of them militants — were killed a day earlier.

Leaflets dropped Wednesday night warned that any trucks traveling in Lebanese
towns south of the Litani River would be suspected of carrying weapons and
rockets and could be targeted by Israeli forces.

A Hezbollah official said it was “fully ready” for an Israeli ground
offensive, dismissing Israeli claims to have destroyed half the guerrillas’
arsenal of missiles. Mahmoud Koumati, deputy leader of Hezbollah’s political
bureau, told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. the group has enough missiles to
fight Israel for “long months.”

The Lebanese government is under international pressure to deploy troops in
the south to rein in Hezbollah — but even before the fighting, many considered
it too weak to do so without deeply fracturing the country.

On Wednesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora appealed for a cease-fire,
saying Lebanon “has been torn to shreds.”

Dallal said Israel had hit “1,000 targets in the last eight days — 20 percent
were missile-launching sites and the rest were control and command centers,
missiles and so forth.”

Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan insisted the Israeli army never targets civilians
but has no way of knowing if they are in an area it is striking. “Civilians
might be in the area because Hezbollah is operating from civilian territory,” he
said.

He said that Hezbollah has fired more than 1,100 rockets at civilian areas in
Israel since the fighting began and that 12 percent — or about 750,000 people —
of Israel’s population lives in areas that can be targeted by the guerrillas.

The Israeli military said aircraft dropped 23 tons of explosives on what it
believed was a bunker for senior Hezbollah leaders in the Bourj al-Barajneh
neighborhood of Beirut between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Hezbollah said none of its members was hurt and denied a leadership bunker
was in the area, saying a mosque under construction was hit. It has a
headquarters compound in Bourj al-Barajneh that is off limits to Lebanese police
and army, so security officials could not confirm the strike.

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman told CNN his country would not comment
about the attack until it is sure of all the facts. But he added, “I can assure
you that we know exactly what we hit. … This was no religious site. This was
indeed the headquarters of the Hezbollah leadership.”

On Thursday, Israeli jets struck houses believed used by Hezbollah officials
in the town of Hermel in the western Bekaa Valley, wounding at least three.

Israeli warplanes also destroyed a five-story residential and commercial
building that reportedly once held a Hezbollah office in the Bekaa Valley city
of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold, witnesses said. There was no immediate word
on casualties.

Two civilians were killed late Wednesday in strikes on bridges in Lebanon’s
far north, near Tripoli, the National News Agency said.

Israeli jets also raided a detention center in the southern town of Khiam
Thursday, witnesses and local TV said. The notorious Khiam prison, formerly run
by Israel’s Lebanese militia allies during its occupation, was destroyed, they
said.

International pressure mounted on Israel and the United States to agree to a
cease-fire.

The destruction and rising death toll deepened a rift between the U.S. and
Europe. The Bush administration is giving Israel a tacit green light to take the
time it needs to neutralize Hezbollah, but the Europeans fear mounting civilian
casualties will play into the hands of militants and weaken Lebanon’s
democratically elected government.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour criticized the rising
toll, saying the shelling was invariably killing innocent civilians.

“International law demands accountability,” she said in Geneva. “The scale of
the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal
criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of
command and control.”

___

Associated Press reporters Joe Panossian in Beirut and Maria Sanminiatelli in
Larnaca, Cyprus, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press