Israel, Hezbollah Intensify Ground Conflict in Lebanon

Reporters inspect rubble of Beirut buildings hit by Israeli missiles. Meanwhile, Hezbollah guerrillas fought Israeli troops in southern Lebanon for a second day.
Reporters inspect rubble of Beirut buildings hit by Israeli missiles. Meanwhile, Hezbollah guerrillas fought Israeli troops in southern Lebanon for a second day. (Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 21, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 20 -- Israeli ground forces and Hezbollah guerrillas engaged in heavy fighting inside Lebanon on Thursday, as senior Israeli defense officials braced the country for a long conflict against the radical Islamic groups on its borders and indicated that a large ground operation could still lie ahead.

The Israeli military said at least two soldiers were killed and six others wounded in the fighting, the most intense ground exchange in the current military campaign. Israeli military officials later said two Apache attack helicopters collided at Ramot Naftali, about two miles inside the Israeli border, just after midnight. One pilot was killed and three crewmen were injured in what was likely an accident, the Reuters news agency reported, citing a military spokeswoman.

Israeli military aircraft pounded targets across Lebanon for a ninth straight day amid growing international calls for Israel to suspend a bombing campaign that has ravaged that country's civilian population. The airstrikes swelled the ranks of the displaced and accelerated the evacuation of U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals, thousands of whom sailed away from the tattered country in a chartered cruise ship and a military transport vessel.

Using local radio stations and other media, Israel warned the roughly 300,000 Lebanese civilians who live south of the Litani River, which runs about 25 miles north of Israel's border with Lebanon, to abandon their homes. Israeli officials, meanwhile, indicated that a large ground offensive could follow as rocket fire continued into Israel's Galilee region, although at a diminished rate.

During a tour of northern Israel, where more than 850 rockets have rained down since Hezbollah gunmen captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the radical Shiite Muslim militia "must not think that we would recoil from using all kinds of military measures against it."

"We have no intention of occupying Lebanon, but we also have no intention of retreating from any military measures needed," Peretz said. The comments left open the possibility that Israel could move forces into southern Lebanon, the restive, Shiite-dominated region it has occupied before. Israeli military officials have raised the need to clear Hezbollah forces from a 12-mile-wide swath inside the Lebanese border to increase the distance between the group's increasingly long-range arsenal and the Israeli cities in the firing line.

Israeli officials have dismissed international proposals for a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, saying they need more time to bombard Hezbollah launch sites, bunkers and supply routes before considering a cease-fire. They say the bombing effort has severely damaged Hezbollah forces -- an assertion denied by the group's leaders in Lebanon.

Hezbollah gunmen fired about 40 rockets into Israel, about a third of the number they fired the previous day. There were no casualties reported from Thursday's rocket strikes, which have killed 15 Israeli civilians since fighting began.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Thursday urged Israel to halt its military operations in Lebanon, claiming it is inflicting unacceptable harm on civilians while increasing Hezbollah's popularity and undercutting Lebanon's fledgling democracy. But he voiced pessimism about the prospects for a quick halt to the violence and urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties in the meantime and provide access for humanitarian relief workers throughout Lebanon.

"The Lebanese people, who had hoped that their country's dark days were behind them, have been brutally dragged back into the war," Annan told the U.N. Security Council. He was accompanied by former Indian diplomat Vijay Nambiar, who had just returned from leading a peace mission in the region.

"Let me be frank with the council," Annan said. "The mission's assessment is that there are serious obstacles to reaching a cease-fire, or even diminishing the violence quickly."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched her diplomatic effort at a working dinner with Annan on Thursday, with a Security Council briefing scheduled for Friday morning. The United States is now working on a package of ideas for Rice to take to the region when she begins talks early next week, with timing and locations still up in the air, U.S. officials said.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company