Deadliest Day for Israel in Lebanon

By Jonathan Finer and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 27, 2006; A01

AVIVIM, Israel, July 27 -- More than 100 Hezbollah fighters staged a fierce ambush on Israeli ground forces entering the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil before dawn Wednesday, killing at least eight soldiers and wounding 22 with gunfire, mortars and antitank missiles.

Later Wednesday, another Israeli soldier was killed near the Lebanese town of Maroun al-Ras.

It was the bloodiest day for Israeli troops in southern Lebanon since clashes there began two weeks ago. "We walked into a wasp's nest and we knew it would be a wasp's nest," said Maj. Zvika Golan, a spokesman for the Israeli army's Northern Command. By his account, all of the ambushed soldiers were on foot because the roads into the town were littered with antitank mines.

The fighting passed two other milestones of intensity Wednesday: One hundred and fifty-one missiles were fired from southern Lebanon into Israel, the most in a day in the current conflict; and 24 Palestinians were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip, the highest number since Israeli settlers and forces were pulled out of the strip last year.

Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, who heads the Northern Command, told reporters Wednesday evening that Israeli attacks in Lebanon could continue "for several weeks" and warned that "we expect more days similar to this one." Early Thursday morning, Israeli warplanes struck targets near Beirut and in southern Lebanon.

The rise in violence came as high-ranking diplomats gathered in Rome to discuss a resolution to the conflict but adjourned without agreeing on a plan for stopping the violence. The U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rejected calls from other representatives for an immediate cease-fire.

During a visit to Tajikistan on Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a cease-fire in Lebanon and said the United States wants to "recarve the map" of the region with Israel's help, the Associated Press reported. Ahmadinejad also demanded that Israel compensate Lebanon and apologize for its actions. Iran, dominated by Shiite Muslims, has long backed Hezbollah, a radical Shiite movement.

Responding to international concern over a mounting humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, Israel's government acted on a pledge to ease a two-week blockade to allow regular shipment of goods into Beirut by sea and air.

Taking swift advantage of the change, two Jordanian C-130 Hercules military transports landed at Beirut's international airport Wednesday morning, the first planes to reach the facility since it was bombed by Israeli warplanes at the outset of the conflict July 12. A third was scheduled to arrive during the evening, according to Richard Mougaes, ground manager at the airport for Lebanon's flag carrier, Middle East Airlines.

Aid officials expressed hope that the flights were the beginning of a large flow of humanitarian supplies into the Lebanese capital. But the Israeli military so far has refused to guarantee the safety of relief trucks to move supplies south down the coastal highway, which has been badly damaged by bombing, the officials said.

"The problem remains to get the assistance to the south where it is needed," said Hisham Hassan, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beirut.

The Red Cross has moved five convoys of relief supplies southward so far, he said, each one with a specific route authorized by Israeli military authorities. The first U.N. convoy to move relief supplies south reached the city of Tyre late Wednesday with 90 tons of wheat, soap, diapers, water purification tablets and emergency medical kits, U.N. officials said.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that it has stockpiled in Syria relief supplies for more than 20,000 people, but was awaiting Israeli authorization to move the materials into Lebanon for relay to the southern towns and villages that have borne the brunt of Israel's air assaults.

Tens of thousands of foreign citizens have fled Lebanon since the fighting erupted. More than 14,000 Americans have been evacuated on military helicopters, warships and cruise vessels in the past 10 days, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The total was nearly double the early U.S. government estimates of likely evacuees. About 25,000 U.S. citizens are believed to be in Lebanon. U.S. officials said hundreds have left the country by crossing into Syria.

Marine Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, commander of the military task force coordinating evacuation efforts from nearby Cyprus, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that the number of Americans leaving Lebanon had slowed to "a trickle."

Also Wednesday, U.N. officials repeated statements that an Israeli air attack that killed four of its border security monitors Tuesday appeared to be deliberate. U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, concluding a six-day mission that took him to Lebanon, Israel and the Gaza Strip, said in Jerusalem that "precision munitions" had landed a direct hit on the U.N. post, despite repeated requests from the U.N. mission in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, to stop firing.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, U.N. officials in Jerusalem said UNIFIL commanders made 10 calls to Israeli military officers Tuesday over six hours, asking that repeated shelling near the compound be halted. In each case, an official said, Israeli officers gave assurances that it would.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement that he had expressed "deep regret" over the incident to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, but called it "inconceivable" that the attack was intentional.

Earlier in the day, Olmert said he would favor deployment of an international force to provide security along the border once Israel's military operation has achieved its objectives. He has said the goal is to stop the rocket attacks and to force Hezbollah to disarm, withdraw from the border and release two soldiers it kidnapped July 12 in a cross-border raid -- the incident that sparked the recent fighting.

[At a news conference in Paris, the mother of one of those soldiers appealed for indications that her son is alive, the Associated Press reported. Malka Goldwasser and other relatives, citing France's historic connections to Lebanon, said they felt France provided the best chance to obtain the soldiers' freedom or, at least, news that they were well.]

Olmert's government has expressed preference for soldiers from NATO rather than a force fielded by the United Nations.

Michael Oren, an Israeli author and historian currently called up to reserve duty as a spokesman for the army, said it was "a sea change" for a country that "has always prided itself on saying we can handle our security on our own to say it wants international forces."

A veteran of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to an 18-year occupation of a security zone along the border and helped give birth to Hezbollah, he called southern Lebanon "an infantrymen's nightmare with a combination of dense woods, ravines, high mountains and, when you're not in the wilderness, narrow alleyways."

Israeli commanders said more than 200 Hezbollah fighters had been killed in recent days, the first time they had put a number on the group's losses. Photographers camped by the border took pictures of soldiers bringing the bodies of five Hezbollah fighters into Israel at about 4 a.m. Wednesday.

The most intense combat took place about an hour later, in a cluster of hilltop communities in Lebanon where Israeli troops have taken the bulk of their casualties.

Israeli troops had been told by intelligence officers to expect a Hezbollah force of 30 to 50 fighters, according to Golan, but the group more than doubled its strength under the cover of darkness.

Adam, the head of the Northern Command, said that soldiers had taken up strategic positions overlooking the town of Bint Jbeil, but had only made brief raids inside it until Wednesday at 5 a.m., when soldiers began moving in on foot. That account seemed to contradict another general's statement a day earlier that the town was under "total control."

The advancing soldiers were pinned down for nearly an hour inside abandoned buildings before they could effectively return fire, Golan said.

It took until early afternoon to carry the dead and wounded more than a mile, often under heavy fire, to a site where tanks could transport them to a waiting helicopter for evacuation, commanders said.

Lebanese residents fleeing Bint Jbeil described a panorama of destruction in the largely deserted town, which Hezbollah has long celebrated as "the city of resistance" for its role in the group's fight against Israeli troops in the 1990s.

Roads into the town were bombed, and every store was shuttered. There was no gasoline for cars, and trips out of town cost hundreds of dollars.

Hezbollah militiamen were turning away refugees, instructing them to head instead to Tibnin, where more than 1,350 had gathered in a hospital, said Hassan Deeb Hassan, an 87-year-old resident of the nearby town of Ainata. "No one can walk in the street, no one can get out of the way of the bombing," he said. "I've seen many wars in my lifetime, but I've never seen anything like this."

Cody reported from Beirut. Correspondents Scott Wilson and John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem and Anthony Shadid in Tyre, and staff writer Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.

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