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Border fighting rages as Israel seeks buffer

BEIRUT -- Pitched battles raged between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters on the border yesterday, and Israel warned hundreds of thousands of people to flee southern Lebanon immediately, preparing for a possible ground offensive to set up a buffer zone.

UN chief Kofi Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and called for an immediate cease-fire, even as he admitted ``serious obstacles" stand in the way of even easing the violence. Annan accused Israel of ``excessive use of force" and said Hezbollah held ``an entire nation hostage" with its rocket attacks and by snatching two Israeli soldiers last week.

As the death toll rose to 330 in Lebanon and to at least 31 in Israel , Lebanese streamed north into the capital and other regions, crowding into schools, relatives' homes, or hotels. Taxi drivers in the south were charging up to $400 per person for rides to Beirut -- more than 40 times the usual price. In remote villages of the south, cut off by strikes, residents made their way out over the mountains by foot.

The price of food, medical supplies, and gasoline rose by as much as 500 percent in parts of Lebanon yesterday as Israel's relentless bombardment destroyed roads, bridges, and other supply routes. The World Food Program said estimates of basic food supplies ranged from one to three months.

On a day that saw US Marines return to Lebanon for the first time in 22 years, the war looked ready to expand dramatically. Neither side showed any sign of backing down. Hezbollah refused to release its two Israeli soldiers without a prisoner exchange, and Israel was moving to create a new buffer zone in a region it occupied for 18 years until 2000.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah shrugged off concerns of a stepped-up Israeli onslaught, vowing never to release two Israeli soldiers captured by his guerrillas even ``if the whole universe comes [against us]." He said they would be freed only as part of a prisoner exchange brokered through indirect negotiations.

He spoke in an interview with the Al-Jazeera news network taped yesterday to show he had survived a heavy airstrike in southern Beirut that Israel said targeted a Hezbollah underground leadership bunker. The militants said the strike only hit a mosque under construction and no one was hurt.

The United States, which has resisted calls to press its ally Israel to halt the fighting, was planning to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region. She is to arrive in Israel Tuesday or Wednesday after stopping over in Arab nations, Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the schedule was not yet confirmed.

The mission would be the first US diplomatic effort on the ground since the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon began nine days ago.

Israel has decided that air power alone will not be enough to drive Hezbollah back from the Israeli-Lebanon border, and that a ground force will be needed to establish a zone that is at least 20 miles deep, senior military officials said yesterday. That would force Hezbollah behind the Litani River.

Israel wants to send a strong message to all its enemies, especially Iran, that the consequences of attacking the Jewish state will be unbearable.

But mounting civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese could limit the amount of time Israel has to achieve its goals, as international tolerance for the bloodshed and destruction runs out.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora put the death toll at more than 330 -- at least 11 of them killed yesterday -- with 1,100 wounded. At least 31 Israelis have been killed, including 16 soldiers -- two of them killed yesterday.

The UN estimated that about a half-million people have been displaced in Lebanon, with 130,000 fleeing to Syria and about 45,000 believed to be in need of assistance.

More than 600 relatives of UN peacekeepers and other foreigners were evacuated by ship from the southern port city of Tyre, a region south of the Litani that has seen a ferocious pounding by Israeli warplanes and gunboats for days. Many of the women and children had spent the night on the beach waiting for the ship that arrived yesterday morning and took them to Cyprus.

The exodus of Americans and other foreign nationals stepped up dramatically, with ships lining up off Beirut to take thousands of families waiting at the port out of the war zone.

A group of around 40 US Marines hit the ground in Beirut, helping in the evacuation of hundreds of Americans to a Navy transport vessel, the USS Nashville, offshore -- the first US military deployment in Lebanon in 22 years.

More than 2,200 Americans were pulled out yesterday.

Two large explosions shook southern Beirut late yesterday in new Israeli strikes on the Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah's stronghold. During the day, Israeli strikes pounded villages and towns in the Shi'ite heartland of the south and the eastern Bekaa Valley.

Hezbollah, in turn, fired more than 40 rockets into northern Israel.

The clashes about a mile inside the Lebanese side of the border yesterday evening accurred when an Israeli patrol sweeping for Hezbollah bunkers was ambushed by militants , taking casualties.

The fight rapidly expanded, with Israeli helicopters firing missiles at targets on the ground and rescue forces storming in.

The Israeli military said two Israeli soldiers died in the fighting and several militants were killed. Hezbollah's Al-Manar television said three Israeli soldiers were killed but did not mention militant casualties.

Two Apache attack helicopters crashed in northern Israel near the Lebanon border early today, injuring four soldiers, the Israeli military said.

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