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thedrifter
07-20-06, 08:06 AM
Israeli troops battle Hezbollah after deadliest day

by Nayla Razzouk
2 hours, 4 minutes ago

Israeli troops are battling Lebanese guerrillas and warplanes bombed a suspected Hezbollah bunker as Lebanon issued a desperate plea for international help after the bloodiest day of the conflict.

Concerns mounted over the humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations warning of an impending "catastrophe" as Israel's relentless campaign to crush the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah killed 72 people on Wednesday, the highest single-day death toll since the offensive was launched nine days ago.

Thousands of foreigners, mainly Westerners, were being evacuated by sea from Beirut to the neighbouring Mediterranean island of Cyprus, fleeing an offensive that has now killed 327 people in Lebanon and displaced an estimated half a million others.

As Israeli warplanes swung into action over south Beirut, dropping 20 tonnes of bombs on a suspected Hezbollah leadership bunker, ground troops were locked in fierce fighting with guerrillas after launching a new cross-border raid.

"There is intense fighting along the border inside Lebanese territory," said Milos Strugar, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon on Thursday.

The Israeli army said three soldiers had been wounded, while Hezbollah claimed it had destroyed two tanks.

Israel said 20 war planes had bombed what it believed to be a bunker full of Hezbollah leaders in the guerrilla group's southern Beirut stronghold but the militant group denied any of its members had been killed and said the building hit was a mosque.

Israel has made no secret of its desire to "liquidate" Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah and has already launched air raids destroying his offices and residence during its blistering nine-day campaign.

"The country has been torn to shreds. Can the international community stand by while such callous retribution by the state of Israel is inflicted on us?" Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told a gathering foreign ambassadors.

"No government can survive on the ruins of a nation," said Siniora, who took office almost exactly a year ago heading the first largely anti-Syrian government since Damascus pulled out its troops in April 2005 after 29 years.

International diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed have yet to get off the ground, with Israel's chief ally the United States refusing to back calls for a ceasefire until Hezbollah halts its rocket attacks.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana were to meet in New York on Thursday with UN chief Kofi Annan, who has proposed the creation of an international force to restore calm.

Solana voiced the hope the conflict could be over by the end of next week.

"We will work very, very hard to see if we can have an end of hostilities and the beginning of something of a political nature before the end of next week," he told the BBC.

In the latest Hezbollah attack, two Arab Israeli children were killed and 37 people wounded when a Katyusha rocket exploded in the northern town of Nazareth, the town where Jesus Christ grew up.

Another two Israeli soldiers were killed in border clashes Wednesday after troops went into Lebanon to conduct "pinpoint" operations against Hezbollah. One Hezbollah militant died in the shootout.

Twenty-nine Israelis, including 14 soldiers, have been killed since a Hezbollah attack in which two soldiers were captured, triggering the Israeli onslaught.

With still no sign of an ceasefire in sight, Israel vowed that its "intensive war" against Hezbollah would go on as long as it deemed necessary.

A British newspaper had reported that the United States was giving Israel the green light to continue its offensive for about a week, until Hezbollah's infrastructure was destroyed.

On Wednesday, Israel had waged a massive blitz from air and sea against southern and eastern Lebanon, flattening houses, destroying roads and hitting trucks. Twenty-five people were killed in one village alone.

Israeli helicopters also fired rockets on a Christian district in Beirut, the first direct strikes in the centre of the capital, raising concerns about the evacuation operation underway at the nearby port.

Meanwhile Israel continued its other deadly offensive in the Gaza Strip, kiling another Palestinian on Thursday, bringing to 96 the number of Palestinians dead since it launched an operation to retrieve a captive soldier and halt rocket attacks.

Expressing alarm about the humanitarian situation in south Lebanon, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said perpetrators in the conflict could be held to account for war crimes.

In Beirut, US Marines were out in force to secure a port being used to evacuate American citizens from Lebanon to Cyprus, which lies just 100 miles (160 kilometres) to the west and is being used as the evacuation hub.

US evacuation task force commander Brigadier General Carl Jensen told reporters in Cyprus that his government hoped to have moved out more than 6,000 nationals from Lebanon.

Britain is also hoping to evacuate about 5,000 of its nationals by the end of the week.

For many ordinary Lebanese there is little chance of such a rescue and police said some 70 percent of the population of south Lebanon, which has borne the brunt of the Israeli operation, had fled their homes to find safer places.

The international airport has been knocked out, ports and roads bombed, bridges destroyed, power stations set ablaze and houses turned to rubble in scenes reminiscent of the country's devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

Israel's offensive drew stinging criticism from The International Committee of the Red Cross, while US-based Human Rights Watch warned that border towns were facing series shortages of food and medicine.

"The high number of civilian casualties and the extent of damage to essential public infrastructure raise serious questions regarding respect for the principle of proportionality in the conduct of hostilities," ICRC director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl said.

Israel, which has sent ground troops back into Lebanon for the first time since it ended its occupation in May 2000, has been emboldened by strong public support at home and the lack of a ceasefire call from its ally Washington.

Amid fears the conflict in Lebanon and Gaza could spread across the region, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the Jewish state is not planning to attack Iran or Syria, noting that it already has its "hands full" with Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Ellie