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Israeli forces push farther into Lebanon

BEIRUT -- Backed by tanks, Israeli troops battled their way to a key Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon yesterday, seizing a hilltop in heavy fighting and capturing two guerrillas. The United States completed its evacuation of 12,000 Americans and said it would switch to bringing in humanitarian aid.

On the 13th day of Israel's offensive, its forces moved one step deeper into Lebanon as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first diplomatic foray since the conflict began -- and immediately met resistance.

Rice paid a surprise visit to Beirut on the way to Israel, trying to push a blanket plan that would call for a cease-fire simultaneous with the deployment of international and Lebanese troops into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a prominent Shi'ite Muslim who has been negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah, rejected the idea and said a cease-fire should be immediate, leaving the other issues for much later. Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora took a similar stance and complained bitterly to Rice about the destruction wreaked by US ally Israel.

Israel ``is taking Lebanon backward 50 years and the result will be Lebanon's destruction," he told Rice, the prime minister's office said.

But a day after criticizing Israel for ``disproportionate" strikes against civilians, UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland accused Hezbollah of ``cowardly blending" among Lebanese civilians.

``Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending . . . among women and children," Egeland said. ``I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men."

Israeli bombardment of populated areas and roads in Lebanon has killed hundreds, displaced as many as 750,000, and dismembered the transportation network. An airstrike overnight killed a family of seven in their home today in the market town of Nabatiyeh in south Lebanon, according to hospital officials and security sources. It was unclear whether the home was targeted.

Thirty strikes in and around towns and on roads were reported yesterday by security officials and Lebanese media -- down from 37 the day before. The numbers do not include strikes on Hezbollah positions that are not in populated areas. Israel reported 270 strikes on Sunday, suggesting that a large number were in more isolated regions.

Hezbollah launched 80 rockets into northern Israel, wounding 13 people, a rate only slightly lower than in past days.

Israel's overall death toll stands at 40, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 23 soldiers killed in the fighting. Sixty-eight soldiers have been wounded, and 255 civilians injured by rocket fire, officials said.

On the Lebanese side, security officials said 391 people had been killed, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah guerrillas.

At the front, Israeli ground forces waged a fierce battle yesterday with guerrillas dug in at the closest large town to the border, Bint Jbail, known as ``the capital of the resistance" for its vehement support of Hezbollah during Israel's 1982-2000 occupation of the south.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed -- two in fighting and two in a helicopter crash -- and 20 were wounded, military officials said.

The army said it captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, the first time it has taken any into custody during the fighting. ``When the enemy surrenders, we take them prisoner. The two prisoners are located in Israel and will be held here with the aim of interrogating them," said Brigadier General Alon Friedman.

Nearly constant gunfire and explosions could be heard, and large plumes of gray smoke rose over the area. Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers entered the fray as guerrillas fought back with anti-tank missiles and mortars.

Backed by an intense artillery barrage, troops seized a hilltop inside the town, but the rest of Bint Jbail remained in the hands of up to 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, military officials said. An Israeli tank was hit by Hezbollah fire, they said. Hezbollah released no casualty figures. It has claimed 11 dead in the entire campaign, though Israel says it has killed more than 100 of its fighters.

Israeli military officials say several thousand troops are moving in and out of southern Lebanon, but there are less than that number in there at any one time.

A day earlier, a Red Cross doctor visited Bint Jbail and reported an unknown number of families hunkered down in schools and mosques for protection, though much of the population of about 30,000 had fled. The move into Bint Jbail, about 2 miles from the border, represents the spear point of Israel's advance, moving forward from Maroun al-Ras, a frontier village captured in more heavy fighting over the weekend.

President Bush ordered Navy ships that have ferried nearly 12,000 Americans out of the country the past week to start today taking in humanitarian aid for Lebanon.

Tens of thousands of refugees are in temporary shelters, supplies of medicine are tight at many hospitals, and fuel is slowly running out under Israel's blockade of Lebanon's ports.

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