Casualties mount in Lebanon

Israeli jets struck Lebanon overnight in
an increasingly bloody 10-day-old war against Hizbollah, but
the guerrilla group insisted it would only free two Israeli
soldiers it is holding as part of a prisoner swap.

As the evacuation of thousands of foreigners from Beirut
gathered pace, four Israeli troops were killed in fierce
battles with Hizbollah guerrillas inside Lebanon on Thursday,
according to Al Jazeera TV.

Israel confirmed two of its troops were killed in the
clashes and said two of its helicopters collided near the
Lebanese border, killing a pilot and injuring three crewmen.

Hizbollah said it lost two of its fighters in the clashes,
which occurred just inside Lebanon near where Hizbollah killed
two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday.

Elite Israeli troops have been launching small-scale raids
in Lebanon to try to stop Hizbollah firing rockets into Israel.

Israel, which is also waging a three-week-old military
campaign in Gaza, began its assault after Hizbollah captured
two soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid on July

Its campaign has killed at least 312 people in Lebanon, the
vast majority civilians, and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Thirty-two Israeli troops and civilians have been killed.

The United States, which has exerted no public pressure on
Israel for a ceasefire, said Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice may travel to the Middle East next week to press for a
political solution.

Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said no amount of
international pressure would deflect the guerrilla group from
its demand that the Jewish state agree to a prisoner swap.

“If the entire universe came (to pressure Hizbollah) it
will not bring back the Israeli soldiers unless through
indirect negotiations and a prisoner swap,” Nasrallah told Al
Jazeera television in an interview.


Nasrallah, whose whereabouts are unknown, said Israel’s
attacks had not damaged the group’s leadership structure.

“All this Israeli talk that they hit 50 percent of our
rocket capabilities and warehouses … is wrong and nonsense,”
he said.

Hizbollah said it had destroyed two Israeli tanks in
house-to-house fighting in the village of Maroun al-Ras. The
group’s al-Manar TV showed captured Israeli equipment,
including a rifle, night-vision binoculars, grenades and a
video camera.

The border clashes have shown the guerrilla group is still
operating relatively freely near the hilly frontier despite a
week of heavy Israeli artillery barrages.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz raised the possibility
of a bigger ground offensive into Lebanon. So far the campaign
has been mainly in the form of air strikes and limited,
temporary incursions.

Nasrallah warned against such an escalation and said
Hizbollah’s rockets could still reach Israel even if its
fighters were pushed back from the border.

“A land invasion will be a disaster for the Israeli army, a
disaster for their tanks, officers and soldiers,” he said, also
suggesting that a U.N. initiative to end the fighting had
failed and that the confrontation could be prolonged.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an immediate
end to hostilities.

A 40-strong U.S. Marine force landed in Lebanon to evacuate
to Cyprus about 1,200 stranded Americans.

It was the U.S. military’s first return to Lebanon since it
withdrew in 1984, months after a Shi’ite Muslim suicide bomber
destroyed a Marine barracks killing 241 U.S. service personnel.

“We are thankful to leave but our hearts and prayers are
with Lebanon and its people,” said evacuee Mireille Ayoub, 47,
from Los Angeles. “It’s very bad there, unsafe and uncertain.”

She was one of thousands of foreign evacuees from Lebanon
arriving in Cyprus.

Israel’s offensive in Lebanon has coincided with a major
push into the Gaza Strip to retrieve another soldier, seized by
Palestinian gunmen on June 25, and stop cross-border rocket

Israeli tanks and troops withdrew from a Palestinian
refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Friday after a three-day
assault that killed 15 Palestinians, witnesses said. They said
the Israeli forces were now massing on the border ahead of a
possible new incursion against nearby Bureij camp.

Israel’s Gaza offensive, launched on June 28, has killed
about 110 Palestinians, half of them militants.

(Reporting by Alaa Shahine, Lin Noueihed, Nadim Ladki and
Dominic Evans in Beirut and Jerusalem and Dubai bureaus)

© 2006 Reuters