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Israel Fights To Secure Key Region In Lebanon

A displaced family waits in a hotel lobby for a chance to leave the rapidly emptying Lebanese city of Tyre.
A displaced family waits in a hotel lobby for a chance to leave the rapidly emptying Lebanese city of Tyre. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Israeli airstrikes repeatedly targeted sites around the southern Lebanese village of Khiyam, seeking out Hezbollah positions and rocket launchers, and again blasted road traffic around the coastal city of Tyre.

By noon, a snarled line of minibuses, pickups, taxis and cars packed with as many as 10 people each stretched for a mile along a cratered street heading through Tyre. Lebanese soldiers directed traffic as it began moving over a dirt road across the Litani River.

Many were fleeing Aitaroun, Bint Jbeil and other cities following Israel's urgent evacuation orders to the 300,000 people who live south of the Litani, which runs roughly 25 miles north of the Israeli border.

Outside Tyre, which appeared deserted as airstrikes continued, the swoosh of Hezbollah rockets fired into Israel could be heard. In the afternoon, Israeli forces showered the city with leaflets showing a bound Lebanese family next to a cleric. Playing on a Lebanese aphorism, the leaflet read: "Those protecting it are robbing it."

"Every two or three years, we see another war," said Ali Ghandour, a 50-year-old resident of Nabatiyeh, who fled to Tyre on the first day of fighting. With about 40 other people, he was living in an unfinished, three-story villa. "For the first time, we want to see a real end to the war, where we live in dignity."

Hussein Daher, a wiry 28-year-old from Toura, shook his head. "Citizens didn't start the war, and they can't end it either," he said.

Relying on goodwill from friends and relatives, those who had been displaced spoke of abandonment by the Lebanese government, other Arab states and the world. Only Hezbollah is protecting them, they said. "From what we've seen all around us -- destroying homes, and the schools, and the bridges, and the roads -- it's become clear what Israel's true ambitions are," Ghandour said.

The fight for Maroun al-Ras has killed seven Israeli soldiers, disabled several tanks and left what Israeli commanders said were dozens of Hezbollah gunmen dead. The operation now comprises a tank brigade and several hundred troops ranged along the border, the commanders said.

Israeli military officials and battlefield commanders said the incursion is designed to drive Hezbollah gunmen from four villages in an area six miles wide and 2.5 miles deep inside Lebanon. Maroun al-Ras, Aitaroun and Yaroun lie in a cluster just over the border roughly 20 miles inland. The fourth village, Marwaheen, is about halfway between the coast and the three other villages.

"We see them sitting inside villages and shooting, getting inside the village and running away," said Lt. Col. Yishai Efrani, deputy commander of the army's Galilee Brigade, which is fighting near Marwaheen. "We don't see Hezbollah face to face. We only see them when we cross the border and try to hunt them."

Tank commanders who have been fighting inside Lebanon said here Saturday that Hezbollah's resistance, based in a network of tunnels, bunkers and posts, was as stiff as expected. Working under a blazing sun, crews emptied one Merkava II tank that had been battered by a Hezbollah mine the previous day, scattering tank shells, .50-caliber ammunition, machine guns and flares.

"They are well-protected and have a lot of ammunition," said Cmdr. Siman Tov, the deputy commander of the tank brigade here.

Tov, 26, said the operations targeting Maroun al-Ras involve 300 to 400 troops and a dozen tanks and that more troops and tanks scheduled to arrive in the coming days would roughly double the size of the force. He said several dozen Hezbollah gunmen are fighting from tunnels, some equipped with above-ground cameras. They are armed with more sophisticated weapons than those being used in the West Bank and Gaza, including longer-range antitank missiles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

"Here we're dealing with missiles, a little army," Tov said. "Here they have been organized. In Gaza, they are just getting organized."

Regarding the fight for Maroun al-Ras, Tov said, "I'm not saying Hezbollah is not there, but we control it."

From a vantage point among the abandoned houses here, however, Israel's army appeared to still be fighting for the town.

The battle has been unfolding along a plowed plain. Dirt tracks run up the hillside toward the apartments and a minaret, near a U.N. peacekeepers' base.

In the afternoon, two columns of tanks and bulldozers kicked up dust trails as they approached the town from two sides. Artillery batteries sent shells whistling across the valley to the hillside as Israeli jets peppered the area with bombs.

After entering two of the towns in recent days, Israeli military officials said, soldiers found Katyusha rocket launchers, antitank missile launchers and ammunition. Israeli officers say the weapons were from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's chief sponsors.

Ilay Talmor, a second lieutenant who commands a tank, helped strip down a damaged tank. Two days earlier he had been trapped inside his platoon commander's tank a half-mile inside Lebanon; the vehicle had been crippled when its tread fractured.

"It was more important for him to go on, so we switched tanks," Talmor said.

After taking mortar fire every few minutes for 24 hours, Talmor's tank was rescued by colleagues. Hezbollah's tenacity, he said, was understandable.

"We knew they were going to do this," Talmor said. "This is territory they say is theirs. We would do the same thing if someone came into our country."

Shadid reported from Tyre. Correspondents John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem, Jonathan Finer in Zarit, Israel, and Edward Cody in Beirut contributed to this report.

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