Israel will pursue its war on Hizbollah with more military incursions into south Lebanon, but will not unleash a full-scale invasion for the moment, an Israeli army spokesman said on Saturday.
Thousands of Lebanese civilians have fled north fearing Israel will invade and expand an 11-day-old bombardment of Lebanon which has killed 345 people, mostly civilians.
Resisting international pressure for a ceasefire, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said before a trip to the region that the conflict’s root causes — in her view Hizbollah’s armed presence on Israel’s border and the role of its allies, Syria and Iran — had to be tackled first.
An army spokesman said Israeli forces were making only limited thrusts a few kilometers (miles) into south Lebanon.
“It will probably widen, but we are still looking at limited operations,” he said. “We’re not talking about massive forces going inside at this point.”
Israel has been building up its forces at the border and has called up 3,000 reserves. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has talked of a possible land offensive to halt rocket attacks that have killed 15 Israeli civilians in the past 11 days.
But Israel is wary of mounting another invasion, only six years after it ended a costly 22-year occupation of the south. It has already lost 19 soldiers dead in the latest conflict.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said an Israeli ground invasion would mark a “very serious escalation” of the conflict.
“If they stay and intend to establish what they have called, in the past, a security zone … it will be a security zone for them, but for the others will be occupation and that will intensify the resistance,” Annan told CNN.
The army said it attacked more than 150 targets in the last 24 hours, hitting Hizbollah guerrilla positions, communications sites and 12 roads linking Lebanon with Syria.
Witnesses said Israeli warplanes also launched one of their heaviest raids yet on the town of al-Khiam, just north of the border, and destroyed five trucks in strikes in eastern Lebanon.
The war started when Hizbollah captured two soldiers and killed eight in a July 12 raid into Israel, which had already launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip to try to recover another soldier seized by Palestinian militants on June 25.
Calling Hizbollah’s action an “outrageous provocation”, Rice said on Friday she would visit the Middle East early next week in search of a durable peace deal.
“What I won’t do is … try to get a ceasefire that I know isn’t going to last,” she said.
Washington supported proposals for an expanded international force on the Israel-Lebanon border but details were not fixed, a senior U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. A 2,000-strong U.N force monitors the border at present.
Israel’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, said nearly 100 Hizbollah fighters had been killed in the offensive, far more than the half-dozen deaths announced by the group.
The United States is rushing precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after its air campaign in Lebanon began, The New York Times reported.
Lebanese families packed into cars and pickup trucks and clogged roads to the north after Israeli planes dropped leaflets on Friday warning residents of south Lebanon to flee for safety beyond the Litani river, about 20 km (13 miles) from the border.
Amid growing concern about the plight of civilians in Lebanon, Israel said it would ease humanitarian access.
U.N. relief agencies have called for safe passage to take food and medical supplies to tens of thousands who have fled their homes. Lebanese government and U.N. estimates put the number of displaced at 500,000.
Foreigners have also flooded out of the country. Ships and aircraft worked through the night scooping more tired and scared people from Lebanon and bringing them to Cyprus and Turkey.
The Pentagon said 4,400 Americans had escaped from Lebanon on Friday by sea and air, the largest single-day total to date in the operation to evacuate foreign nationals.
The amphibious transport USS Trenton, the biggest ship so far involved in the operation, deposited a further 1,800 people at the Cypriot port of Limassol in the early hours of Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Jerusalem, Nicosia, Washington bureau)
Â© Reuters 2006