Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fighting Rages On: Israel Suffers Heavy Losses

The New York Times
Israel Suffers Bloodiest Day of Fight With Hezbollah
By Craig S. Smith
The New York Times

Wednesday 26 July 2006

Avivim, Israel - Israel suffered its worst casualties in southern Lebanon today since the current conflict with Hezbollah started, as thousands of Israeli troops there fought house to house, and village to village, in an attempt to create a buffer zone that Israel hoped would be filled by a multinational peacekeeping force.

At least eight Israeli soldiers were killed and many were wounded in the ground battles
, according to unofficial reports from military officers, who were not yet authorized to speak publicly about casualties and had not yet received a full account of the day's toll.

The Israeli military has not yet officially confirmed the figures, but some news service reports indicated that the death toll could be as high as 14.

Israeli officers on the border said there were thousands of soldiers in the south of the country engaged in very heavy fighting. Soldiers involved in the battle say that Hezbollah is dug in deeply, and its fighters have shown a willingness to die. Most of the Israeli casualties have come from ambushes, trapping tanks under intense fire and making rescue operations difficult, they said.

"This is a conflict which will take some time," said Gen. Benny Ganz, the chief of the northern command, who is directing ground operations. He described the environment around Bint Jbeil in Lebanon, where the bulk of the fighting took place today, as "harsh," calling the Hezbollah a well-trained military organization.

Israel staged 15 airstrikes in southern Lebanon today, The Associated Press reported. In the southern port city of Tyre, an Israeli strike leveled an empty six-story building, it said, quoting security officials and witnesses.

CNN broadcast footage from a blast scene in Tyre, which it said was in a civilian area, of flames shooting up between piles of collapsed building rubble and casualties being helped into an ambulance, faces coated with dust from the explosions. A woman clutched a child in her arms; sirens wailed.

One man stumbled through the burning rubble, salvaging a Koran from the dust and kissing it.

There was no immediate word on casualties.

Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending about two decades of occupation. The current conflict with Hezbollah started on July 12, when the Lebanese guerrilla group surprised Israel with a bold daylight assault across the border, leading to fighting in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and at least eight killed.

The fighting in Lebanon has opened a second front for Israel, which is also battling in the Gaza Strip as part of efforts to rescue a kidnapped Israeli soldier and stop rocket attacks launched from the northern part of that territory into Israel by Palestinian militants.

Today, Israeli airstrikes and ground fire killed at least 12 Palestinians, most of them militants, but also a small girl, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Most of the deaths were in the eastern part of Gaza City, and more than 20 people were injured.

Since the fighting with Hezbollah started, the Israeli military has been bombarding targets in Lebanon with artillery and fighter planes. Last week, Israeli tanks clanked into the mountaintop village of Marun al-Ras in the army's first ground penetration into Lebanese villages, in territory said to be the launching site for rockets that have rained over northern Israel for more than a week.

On the so-called Avivim line, a road that runs parallel to the Lebanese border, an Israeli army major, who said his first name was Sahar, said he sent his forces over the border to extricate a tank this morning in which a battalion commander was wounded.

The fighting was "very, very heavy, and it took a long time," said the major, who is in charge of some armored bulldozers that he said were preparing to go back in again soon.

Early this morning, the Avivim line, from which Israel launched its ground troops into Lebanon during the 1982 invasion, was crowded with tanks and soldiers. Some were sweat-stained and exhausted coming out of battle. Other soldiers, appearing anxious or preoccupied, had daubed their faces with olive drab and black grease paint, prepared to go into battle.

By late afternoon the road was largely cleared, apparently as forces either withdrew or were deployed.

Battlefield casualties which had been moved by overland the short distance from Bint Jbeil to the border in recent days were now being taken by helicopter directly to Ramban hospital in Haifa, where a soldier reached by telephone said there were many wounded.

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