Israeli Troops Push Into South Lebanon

The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; 8:24 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israeli troops punched into south Lebanon on Wednesday as warplanes flattened houses and buildings including one thought to hold Hezbollah's top leaders, intensifying an offensive despite mounting international pressure and a Lebanese appeal to spare the country further death and devastation.

The attempt to wipe out the Hezbollah leadership was the most dramatic action on a day that saw Israelis clash with the guerrillas and the Lebanese prime minister say about 300 people in his country had died in the eight-day offensive. Israel broadcast warnings into south Lebanon telling civilians to leave the region, a possible prelude to a larger Israeli ground operation.

Hezbollah, undeterred, fired rockets into the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth, where Jesus is said to have spent his boyhood, killing two Arab brothers, ages 3 and 9, as they played outdoors.

Thousands of foreigners fled Lebanon in one of the largest evacuation operations since World War II, including 1,000 Americans who arrived in Cyprus early Thursday on a rented cruise ship.

"I'm so relieved, there are no words to explain. I'm very thankful," said Elizabeth Kassab, 45, nervously smoking a cigarette on the ship's deck. "But I'm still nervous and I won't relax until we get out of here."

The flight from the fighting came as international pressure mounted on Israel and its key supporter, the United States, to agree to a cease-fire. The rising death toll and scope of the destruction deepened a rift between the U.S. and Europe, and humanitarian agencies were sounding the alarm over a pending catastrophe with a half million people displaced in Lebanon.

Hezbollah denied that any of its "leaders or members" died in the strike in the Bourj al-Barajneh district of south Beirut. The explosives did not blast a leadership bunker, but a mosque under construction, the group said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.

In a statement, the Israeli military spokesman's office said: "We attacked a bunker of Hezbollah leaders in the Bourj al-Barajneh neighborhood of Beirut." The military said the attack took place between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. and involved 23 tons of explosives.

Last Friday, Israel bombed leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's headquarters but both he and his family survived.

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, whose weak government has been unable to fulfill a U.N. directive to disarm Hezbollah and put its army along the border with Israel, issued an urgent appeal for a cease-fire. He said his country "has been torn to shreds," and pointedly criticized the U.S. position that Israel acts in self-defense.

"Is this what the international community calls self-defense?" a stern-looking Saniora asked a meeting of foreign diplomats including U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. "Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?"

Israel vowed to press the offensive in Lebanon until it destroys the militant Shiite guerrillas' vast arsenal of missiles and drives Hezbollah fighters far from its northern border.

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