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Lebanese Told to Leave the South

Times Staff Writers

Israel ordered civilians out of a nearly 20-mile-deep swath of southern Lebanon as the already bloody fighting there threatened to intensify.

International pressure for a cease-fire mounted, but with little sign of progress. A senior United Nations official said privately that he expected Israel’s bombardment of Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon to continue for weeks.

Since the fighting began last week, Israel has pounded border villages where it says Hezbollah fighters have been hiding with missiles and rocket launchers. Thursday’s effort to push out the civilian population went deeper into Lebanese territory, reaching north to the port city of Tyre and the Litani River.

It was not known how many residents had already fled the region, which is believed to have a population of more than 300,000.

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Israel’s offensive has been carried out largely from the air, but fighting on the ground has been expanding. The Israeli military said two soldiers and several guerrillas died Thursday in southern Lebanon during clashes near where two Israeli soldiers were killed a day earlier. Officials said one pilot died and three were injured early today when two Apache attack helicopters crashed in Israel near the border.

Small groups of Israeli soldiers have crossed into Lebanon over the last several days, searching for weapons and Hezbollah outposts. Increasingly, militants have met these forays with fierce resistance, indicating that they have been able to avoid the airstrikes and artillery fire.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite Muslim militant group, boasted Thursday that it was able to withstand the Israeli assault. He appeared in an interview on Al Jazeera television a day after Israeli officials said they had dropped 23 tons of explosives on a southern Beirut bunker believed to house Hezbollah leaders.

“All this Israeli talk that they hit 50% of our rocket capabilities and warehouses, this talk is all wrong and nonsense,” Nasrallah said.

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Hezbollah denied that the site targeted in southern Beirut was a bunker. In the interview, Nasrallah said, “I can confirm without exaggerating or using psychological warfare that we have not been harmed.”

Lebanese officials have said they are unable to provide any information about the neighborhood that was bombed because it contains a Hezbollah base and is off-limits to the government.

Al Jazeera said that the interview was taped Thursday and that its correspondent did not know where he was taken to meet Nasrallah.

As the fighting moved into its ninth day and Israeli warplanes continued to hit targets across Lebanon, Hezbollah rocket fire at northern Israeli towns and cities dropped off sharply, with about 40 salvos counted by late evening Thursday, the Israeli military said. On the heaviest days of such attacks, as many as 130 rockets had fallen.

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In southern Lebanon, relentless bombardment and Israeli warnings to immediately leave the area triggered a chaotic exodus from towns and villages lying between the border and the Litani, about 20 miles to the north.

International calls for a cease-fire mounted. The fighting, the region’s worst in more than two decades, has killed more than 330 Lebanese and 32 Israelis.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an immediate end to the hostilities, though he acknowledged that there were “serious obstacles to reaching a cease-fire, or even to diminishing the violence quickly.”

Annan sharply criticized both sides, denouncing Hezbollah’s “provocative attack” and Israel’s “disproportionate” response.

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In Washington, the State Department said Secretary Condoleezza Rice would travel to the region as early as next week to try to broker a solution to the crisis. So far, the United States has not attempted to rein in the Israeli offensive, saying the Jewish state is entitled to defend itself.

Annan outlined several steps to be carried out simultaneously. He called for Hezbollah to release two captured Israeli soldiers to the Lebanese government under custody of the International Committee of the Red Cross so they could be returned home, and for an expanded peacekeeping force to be established on the Lebanese side of the border while the government there worked to strengthen its control over the country.

Nasrallah, in his interview Thursday, said the captured Israelis would be freed only as part of a prisoner exchange with Israel. Without that, the soldiers will not be released even “if the whole universe comes against us,” he said.

The confrontation erupted July 12 when Hezbollah fighters slipped into Israel, captured the two soldiers, killed three others, then ambushed and killed five who pursued them. The fighting swiftly escalated into raging warfare and a humanitarian crisis.

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In southern Lebanon, the latter was vividly on display Thursday in scenes of suffering as the elderly, poor and sick struggled to fend for themselves.

Refugees huddled on the lawns and in the lobbies of jammed hotels in Tyre, while others sought shelter in hospitals they hoped would be spared from airstrikes.

At one emergency room, the wounded were being hastily treated, then sent on a perilous ambulance ride to Beirut, the capital. Bodies were left uncollected in wrecked cars and bombed buildings.

Israeli planes had dropped leaflets and broadcast warnings Wednesday night telling people in towns and villages in the south that they would be in danger if they stayed.

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The leaflets also warned that anyone in trucks would be suspected of transporting weapons.

Israeli officials refused to say whether the attempt to clear much of southern Lebanon was a precursor to heavier bombardment or a large ground offensive.

“What we’re trying to do is warn people in the southern part of the country that it’s for their overall safety not to be there,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, a military spokesman.

“We’ve had more than 1,000 rockets launched at us,” he said. “Where are they stored? In people’s houses. Where are they launched from? The outskirts of villages.... Therefore, to go after the missiles in self-defense, we have to get at this infrastructure.”

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Many Israelis hope to avoid extensive ground combat in Lebanon, a prospect that brings back memories of their nation’s debilitating 18-year military entanglement there.

Israeli Cabinet minister Shalom Simhon said the move to empty the south of residents made a ground incursion “redundant.”

“The public supports the operation as it is being conducted,” he said. “The question is what do we want? A longer war conducted mostly by the air force, or a shorter war with heavy losses?”

Israeli lawmaker Effi Eitam said, “Hezbollah is surprised that lines of tanks aren’t rolling into Lebanon, since this is what they expected us to do, and where they expected to exact a toll.

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“The air force is Israel’s advantage in this war,” he said.

Still, Hezbollah’s resilience in the face of the onslaught has prompted increasing debate over the effectiveness of Israel’s tactics.

In addition to the continuing strikes in Lebanon’s south, Israel launched air raids Thursday in the eastern Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah’s main logistics center, as well as in the group’s stronghold of south Beirut. Israeli officials say they have hit more than 1,000 targets in Lebanon since the start of the conflict.

With the humanitarian crisis worsening, the son of Rafik Hariri, the assassinated former leader of Lebanon, was in Europe to seek support for his country. He won endorsement from Italy and the Vatican for an immediate cease-fire and the opening of a humanitarian corridor.

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Saad Hariri, majority leader of the Lebanese parliament, said the envisioned corridor from Cyprus to Beirut would help supplies reach more than half a million displaced people in urgent need of food and medicine.

“It is an unbearable situation,” he said at a news conference in Rome.

“It is not fair for Lebanese to pay the price for something they are not part of,” he said.

Hariri met Wednesday with the secretary of state of the Holy See, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

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On Thursday, a worried Pope Benedict XVI designated Sunday a special international day of prayer.

The Lebanese people have a right to see the integrity and sovereignty of their country respected, the Israelis have the right to live in peace in their state, and the Palestinians have the right to have a free and sovereign homeland, the pontiff said in a statement.

King reported from Jerusalem and Kennedy from Beirut. Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations, Megan K. Stack in Tyre and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fighting drags on

Military action continued to trump diplomacy as the Israeli-Hezbollah battle ended its ninth day.

Lebanon

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Israeli troops cross the border for a second time in as many days, engaging in daylong battles with Hezbollah fighters along Lebanon’s southern edge. Israel’s air force again strikes targets in south Beirut, as well as in the Bekaa Valley.

Israel

Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into Israel, but at a diminished pace. No casualties are reported.

Gaza Strip

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Three Palestinians are killed by gunfire and airstrikes in and around a central Gaza refugee camp.

Evacuations

A small contingent of U.S. Marines arrives in Lebanon to help evacuate Americans. The warship Nashville leaves Beirut for Cyprus with about 1,000 passengers; helicopters were to fly out an additional 200.

Ground fighting

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An Israeli army spokesman says cross-border incursions are limited and specific but that no options are being ruled out. Israel has warned that people south of the Litani River should leave the area and that trucks in the area will be suspected of transporting weapons and possibly targeted. Israeli leaders reportedly meet to discuss the size of any ground invasion.

Humanitarian concerns

The United Nations estimates that about half a million people have been displaced; 130,000 have gone to Syria and 45,000 need assistance. Israel says it will allow aid into Lebanon. Pope Benedict XVI calls for prayers to help the displaced Lebanese.

Diplomacy

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U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemns the actions of both sides and calls for an immediate cease-fire. Israel says it would welcome any German effort to free two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah. Italy and the Vatican endorse a cease-fire. The U.S. State Department says Secretary Condoleezza Rice will travel to the region as early as next week.

Sources: The Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, Los Angeles Times reporting


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