To a steady clap of artillery fire, columns of Israeli tanks and troops roared deeper into southern Lebanon on Saturday, battling Hezbollah fighters on the ground and seizing control of a strategic hilltop village that has served as a militant stronghold.
As tens of thousands of Lebanese fled the southern tier of their country over bombed-out roads, Israeli warplanes blasted communications towers in central and northern Lebanon and struck for the first time the southern port city of Sidon, where thousands of refugees have sought haven. Reports say the air raid destroyed a Shiite religious complex.
“This target was a compound that was used as a gathering place for Hezbollah’s members and supporters,” an army spokesman said.
Similar predawn strikes were staged against Hezbollah structures in south Beirut, the group’s main stronghold, and the eastern Bekaa Valley, according to the Israeli military. Witnesses said a series of large explosions rocked southern Beirut.
By late Saturday afternoon, Hezbollah had unleashed 90 rockets into Israel, striking Kiryat Shemona in the northern Galilee and Nahariya and the Haifa area along Israel’s northern coast.
The Israeli army said it continued to target rocket launchers in southern Lebanon, aiming to choke off rocket fire at northern Israel. Early today, Israeli warplanes hit one launcher that was loaded and about to be fired, the military said.
In its most extensive incursion to date, the Israeli army punched through the border near this northern Israeli community and pushed at least 2 1/2 miles into Lebanon, commanders at the scene said, carving out a swath six miles wide that encompassed a dozen or more Lebanese villages.
“We are going there to kill them, to find them in bunkers and tunnels,” Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, the commander of the army’s Galilee division, told reporters. “This takes time and requires patience. This is war.”
By nightfall, Israeli commanders said paratroopers and soldiers with the elite Golani infantry brigade were in control of the village of Maroun el Ras, a strategically valuable highpoint, after bombarding the parched valley below with artillery fire much of the day. This area was the scene of intense fighting last week and is considered by the Israelis to be a launching pad for Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel’s northern towns.
In nearby Marwaheen, another Lebanese village, soldiers uncovered a large cache of antitank missiles, launchers and assorted weaponry, ground forces commander Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz said.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to depart for the Middle East today in a bid to ease the hostilities, Israeli officials insisted that they were not mounting a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, a move that would mirror the first steps of what became a traumatic 18-year-long occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000.
Instead, officials said the incursions into Lebanese territory, which began on a smaller scale last week, would be “pinpoint” search-and-destroy missions against the Shiite militia that has lobbed hundreds of rockets at northern Israel and taken two Israeli soldiers hostage.
The ground action followed Israel’s mobilization of thousands of reserve troops and two days of warnings to Lebanese to leave their homes in the section of the country south of the Litani River -- all hints of heavier, prolonged combat.
Lebanese by the thousands attempted to flee north over crowded, bombed-splintered roads choked with dust and chaos. Exhausted and angry, families said they did not know where they would go, only that they could no longer remain in villages that had been left in ruins.
“I’m very sad to be leaving my home,” said Hassan Shehab, a 45-year-old tailor who was stuck in traffic on a single-lane dirt road leading toward Beirut from the southern seaside city of Tyre. Shehab’s rear window was covered by a photograph of Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah; he flicked the ashes from his cigarette with angry jerks of his arm.
“Israel wants to kill all of us,” he said. “They want this country.”
By midday Saturday, 14 bomb-battered bodies had been delivered to the Tyre hospital from surrounding villages, and 30,000 evacuees were crammed into basements and schools or ended up on lawns outside a beach resort.
Lebanese and U.N. officials warned of a humanitarian crisis, estimating that at least 700,000 people have been displaced, 360 Lebanese civilians killed and more than 1,000 wounded since Israel launched its attacks a week and a half ago.
The ground fighting has centered on the ridge where Maroun el Ras sits, and where Israeli forces encountered stiff resistance. The area is seen as significant because of its sweeping views of Israeli targets to the east and west below. Seven Israeli commandos have been killed here in the last week of combat.
On Saturday, columns of five or six Israeli tanks and bulldozers could be seen advancing up the stony slope to Maroun el Ras.
The procession into southern Lebanon was punctuated by blasts of artillery fire from Israel’s side of the border, followed moments later by columns of gray dust in and around Maroun el Ras as the shells landed. The Israeli convoys passed a U.N. outpost on the way to the village.
One convoy stopped halfway up the hill. A second skirted the ridge to the west behind a veil of dust as artillery shells slammed into the arid hillside.
Army officials said the incursions would be limited in scale, aimed at pushing Hezbollah from the border, where the Shiite militants have dug in with reinforced outposts and tunnels during the six years since Israel withdrew.
“We’re taking the fortified outposts one by one and cleaning the whole area,” said Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman.
Soldiers who have taken part in the fighting on the Lebanese side of the border described a formidable, if small-scale, Hezbollah army with sophisticated weaponry and protected by a network of hardened underground bunkers and tunnels.
Israeli armored crews ran into heavy fire from antitank missiles that were of high quality and advanced technology, said Siman Tov, a tank officer who is deputy commander of the armored brigade responsible for covering Israel’s northern border.
“Hezbollah has prepared for six years for this day. It is obvious to us,” said Tov, a lanky 26-year-old with a buzz cut who wore wraparound sunglasses and the standard green coveralls of tank crews.
Tov said Maroun el Ras had been defended by 50 to 100 Hezbollah fighters. Israeli forces had killed as many as 30 of them, he said.
The weapons stockpiled by Hezbollah were far more advanced than those employed by Palestinian fighters he had encountered during tank incursions into the Gaza Strip before Israel’s withdrawal last summer, he said. Israel launched a fresh Gaza incursion last month after militants crossed the border and abducted a soldier.
A second commander, Lt. Ilay Talmor, said his crew came under mortar fire during the 24 hours it was stranded on the Lebanese side after the tank became stuck. He described the resistance as stiff.
But Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan said the military goal was not to eliminate Hezbollah, an idea suggested by some Israeli officials in the first days of the conflict, when Defense Minister Amir Peretz said, “We intend to break this organization.”
“We understand that destroying Hezbollah is not something for a military operation,” Nehushtan said in a telephone interview. “The military objective will be to cripple Hezbollah to such a level that will enable the necessary change in Lebanon, which means the eventual disarming of Hezbollah.”
This more measured tone may be an effort by Israeli officials to lower expectations for the operations among their domestic audience, and a possible opening for diplomacy in the days ahead.
Although public opinion polls have suggested that the Israeli public overwhelmingly backs the government’s war aims, the prospect of ground operations may undermine some of that support. Peace protesters turned out for a small demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday for the first time since the start of the offensive.
“We do not believe in this war,” said activist Adi Dagan. “We do not believe that military force can impose a new order in Lebanon.... We all want to get rid of Hezbollah, but this is not the right way.”
Times staff writers Megan K. Stack in Tyre, Laura King in Jerusalem and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.