Israel expands battle to widen security zone

As the 48-hour bombing respite ends, Israel aims to drive Hizbullah 15 miles from its border.

A senior Israeli military official said Tuesday night that the 48-hour-period Israel had set aside for a suspension of its airstrikes in Lebanon was coming to an end, and that when it does, Israel will resume attacks on Hizbullah positions through both aerial assaults and sizeable ground operations.

Brigadier-General Shuki Shahar of the northern command told reporters that Israel had already sent six brigades into southern Lebanon, and that the Israeli military was in control of some areas of the Litani River, around Taybeh.

Israel, he said, is starting to recapture areas that the Israeli army had occupied for about two decades when it pulled out in April 2000, and would try to push Hizbullah 15 miles away from the Israel-Lebanon border.

At nightfall Tuesday, Israeli troops were engaged in fierce battles with Hizbullah at several points along the common border. Reporters and Arab TV reported especially heavy fighting and Israeli artillery bombardment at the village of Aita al-Shaab.

Israel had already resumed sporadic air strikes Tuesday. Jet fighters struck deep inside Lebanese territory, hitting Hermel, 73 miles north of the Israeli border in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Warplanes fired at least five air-to-surface missiles on the edge of the town, targeting a road linking eastern Lebanon to western regions and the coastline.

Now, with thousands of troops amassing Tuesday night in places like this northern border town, the extent of Israel's plans for taking on Hizbullah began to unfold. Mr. Shahar, briefing reporters at a nearby army base, said that the 48-hour period has never been a cease-fire, as some media outlets have reported, but simply a cessation of air strikes "on particular areas."

This, he said, was meant to give "a chance, even a 20th chance" for innocent Lebanese villagers to evacuate areas known to be held by Hizbullah.

Compared to the recent barrage by Hizbullah of Katyusha rockets on Israeli cities, only a handful have fallen since Sunday night, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice obtained the promise for the halt from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Only four Katyushas fell in the two-day period, Shahar said, and only in open fields, although the Israeli army continued to come under mortar fire. He suggested that perhaps Hizbullah misunderstood what Israel's intention was.

"Maybe someone on the other side misinterpreted, or decided to declare a cease-fire ... while none was reached," Shahar said. He said Israel had done real damage to Hizbullah's weapons cache, in particular, its rocket launchers, and had killed at least 200 guerrilla fighters.

"I can tell you that the medium-range and long-range capabilities of Hizbullah were hit very severely," he said. Since the start of the conflict, now heading into its fourth week, the number of available rockets in Hizbullah's arsenal has been decreased by a few thousand, Shahar added.

Israel's ground offensive in Lebanon, which was beginning to widen overnight into Wednesday, now appears aimed at driving Hizbullah north and reestablishing an occupation zone that Israel would control until an international peacekeeping force is sent in from abroad. Since that could take at least several weeks to establish, and Israeli officials suggested that the war against Hizbullah would continue in the meantime. The key goal, said Shahar, is that Hizbullah be driven from the south of the country, and that it will "suffer a massive destruction" of its facilities and infrastructure.

Military analysts say the operation also seems aimed at capturing control of the Litani River, which could allow Israel to block passage between Syria and Lebanon for the entire southern sector of the country, preventing more ammunition from being smuggled in from the east.

Israel said it would leave open two humanitarian corridors in this area of control, but would monitor these access strips to prevent them being used by Hizbullah for reinforcements.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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