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