Israel prepares ground offensive

    Pitched battles raged between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters
    on the border Thursday, and Israel warned hundreds of thousands of
    people to flee southern Lebanon “immediately,” preparing for a likely
    ground offensive to set up a buffer zone.

    U.N. chief Kofi Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and
    called for an immediate cease-fire, even as he admitted “serious
    obstacles” stand in the way of even easing the violence. Annan
    denounced Israel for “excessive use of force” and Hezbollah for holding
    “an entire nation hostage” with its rocket attacks and snatching of two
    Israeli soldiers last week.

    As the death toll rose to 330 in Lebanon, as well as at least 32
    Israelis, Lebanese streamed north into the capital and other regions,
    crowding into schools, relatives’ homes or hotels. Taxi drivers in the
    south were charging up to $400 per person for rides to Beirut — more
    than 40 times the usual price. In remote villages of the south, cut off
    by strikes, residents made their way out over the mountains by foot.

    The price of food, medical supplies and gasoline rose by as much as
    500 percent in parts of Lebanon on Thursday as Israel’s relentless
    bombardment destroyed roads, bridges and other supply routes. The World
    Food Program said estimates of basic food supplies ranged from one to
    three months.

    On a day that saw U.S. Marines return to Lebanon for the first time
    in 22 years, the war looked ready to expand dramatically. Neither side
    showed any sign of backing down. Hezbollah refused to release its two
    Israeli soldiers without a prisoner exchange, Israel was aiming to
    create a new buffer zone in a region that saw 18 years of Israeli
    presence ending in 2000.

    Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah shrugged off concerns of a
    stepped-up Israeli onslaught, vowing never to release two Israeli
    soldiers captured by his guerrillas even “if the whole universe comes
    (against us).” He said they would be freed only as part of a prisoner
    exchange brokered through indirect negotiations.

    He spoke in an interview with the Al-Jazeera news network taped
    Thursday to show he had survived a heavy airstrike in south Beirut that
    Israel said targeted a Hezbollah underground leadership bunker. The
    guerrillas said the strike only hit a mosque under construction and no
    one was hurt.

    The United States — which has resisted calls to press its ally
    Israel to halt the fighting — was sending Secretary of State
    Condoleezza Rice to the region, arriving in Israel on Tuesday or
    Wednesday after stopping over in Arab nations, Israeli officials said.
    They spoke on condition of anonymity because the schedule was not yet
    confirmed.

    The mission would be the first U.S. diplomatic effort on the ground
    since the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon began nine days ago.

    Israel has decided air power alone will not be enough to drive
    Hezbollah back from the Israeli-Lebanon border and that a ground force
    will be needed to establish a zone that is at least 20 miles deep,
    senior military officials said Thursday. That would force Hezbollah
    behind the Litani River.

    Israel wants to send a strong message to all its enemies, especially
    Iran, that the consequences of attacking the Jewish state will be
    unbearable.

    But mounting civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of
    thousands of Lebanese could limit the amount of time Israel has to
    achieve its goals, as international tolerance for the bloodshed and
    destruction runs out.

    Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora put the death toll at more than
    330 — at least 11 of them killed Thursday — with 1,100 wounded. At
    least 32 Israelis have been killed, including 17 service members —
    three of them killed in military operations Thursday and early Friday.

    Saniora said more than 55 bridges across the country had been
    destroyed, and that Israeli forces had targeted ambulances and medical
    convoys.

    “This attack is no longer against Hezbollah, it is an attack against the Lebanese and Lebanon,” Saniora told CNN.

    The U.N. estimated that about a half-million people have been
    displaced in Lebanon, with 130,000 fleeing to Syria and about 45,000
    believed to be in need of assistance.

    More than 600 relatives of U.N. peacekeepers and other foreigners
    were evacuated by ship from the southern port city of Tyre, a region
    south of the Litani that has seen a ferocious pounding by Israeli
    warplanes and gunboats for days. Many of the women and children had
    spent the night on the beach waiting for the ship that arrived Thursday
    morning and took them to Cyprus.

    The exodus of Americans and other foreign nationals stepped up
    dramatically, with ships lining up off Beirut to take thousands of
    families waiting at the port out of the war zone.

    A group of around 40 U.S. Marines hit the ground in Beirut,
    helping in the evacuation of hundreds of Americans to a Navy transport
    vessel, the USS Nashville, offshore — the first U.S. military
    deployment in Lebanon in 22 years. More than 2,200 Americans were
    pulled out Thursday, twice the number a day before.

    Israeli forces resumed attacks on Beirut at daybreak on Friday,
    witnesses said. One loud explosion was heard in the Lebanese capital.
    Al-Arabyia TV said the strike had targeted Beirut’s southern suburbs,
    Hezbollah’s stronghold. Israeli strikes Thursday pounded southern
    Beirut and villages and towns in the Shiite heartland of the south and
    the eastern Bekaa Valley.

    Hezbollah, in turn, fired more than 40 rockets into northern Israel.

    The clashes about a mile inside the Lebanese side of the border
    Thursday evening came when an Israeli patrol sweeping for Hezbollah
    bunkers was ambushed by guerillas, taking casualties. The fight rapidly
    expanded, with Israeli helicopters firing missiles at targets on the
    ground and rescue forces storming in.

    The Israeli military said two Israeli soldiers died in the
    fighting and several guerrillas were killed. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar
    television said three Israeli soldiers were killed but did not mention
    guerrilla casualties.

    Two Apache attack helicopters collided in an accident northern
    Israel near the Lebanon border early Friday, killing one air force
    officer and injuring three others, two seriously, Israeli officials
    said. Al-Jazeera reported that four soldiers were killed in the crash,
    but did not give a source.

    The commander of Israel’s air force appointed an inquiry team to determine the cause.

    Israel has stepped up its small-scale forays over the border in
    recent days, seeking Hezbollah positions, rocket stores and bunkers.
    Each time it has faced tough resistance from the guerrillas.

    In preparation for a more powerful punch deeper into Lebanon,
    an Israeli military radio station that broadcasts into the south issued
    what it called “a strict warning” that Israeli forces would “act
    immediately” to halt Hezbollah rocket fire.

    “It will act in word and deed inside the villages of the south
    against these aggressive terrorist acts. Therefore all residents of
    south Lebanon south of the Litani must leave their areas immediately
    for their own safety,” the message in Arabic on the Al-Mashriq station
    said.

    More than 300,000 people are believed to live south of the
    Litani — which twice has been the border line for Israeli buffer zones.
    In 1978, Israel invaded up to the Litani to drive back Palestinian
    guerrillas, withdrawing from most of the south months later.

    Israel invaded Lebanon again in a much bigger operation in June
    1982 when its forces seized parts of Beirut. It eventually carved out a
    buffer zone that stopped at the Litani. That zone was reduced gradually
    but the Israeli presence lasted for 18 years until 2000, when it
    withdrew its troops completely from the country.

    ___

    Associated Press reporter Maria Sanminiatelli in Larnaca, Cyprus, contributed to this report.

    © 2006 The Associated Press