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Israelis Seize Control of Southern Lebanon Town, Find Weapons Cache

Israeli tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers knocked down a fence and barreled over the Lebanese border Saturday as forces seized a village from the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

The soldiers battled militants throughout the day and raided the large village of Maroun al-Ras in several waves before finally taking control, military officials said. Tens of thousands of Lebanese fleeing north packed into the port of Sidon to escape the fighting as the United Nations warned of a growing humanitarian "disaster."

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Early Sunday, warplanes for the first time hit inside the port city of Sidon, currently swollen with refugees, destroying a religious complex that the Israeli military said was used by Hezbollah. Hospital officials said four people were wounded.

A series of large explosions reverberated through Beirut in the early hours Sunday as Israeli aircraft again pounded Hezbollah's stronghold in the south. Warplanes also hit targets in eastern Bekaa Valley, firing missiles in the cities of Hermel and Baalbek, witnesses said. There was no immediate word on casualties in either strike.

CountryWatch: Israel

The growing use of ground forces, 11 days into the fighting, signaled Israeli recognition that airstrikes alone were not enough to force Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon. But a ground offensive carries greater risks to Israel, which already has lost 18 soldiers in the recent fighting. It also threatens to exacerbate already trying conditions for Lebanese civilians in the area.

Israeli military officials have said they want to push Hezbollah beyond the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border, with the Lebanese army deploying in the border zone. An Israeli radio station that broadcasts to southern Lebanon warned residents of 13 villages to flee north by Saturday afternoon. The villages form a corridor about 4 miles wide and 11 miles deep.

With Lebanese fearing an escalation in the battle, international officials worked to end the conflict.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was set to arrive in the Middle East on Sunday, though she ruled out a quick cease-fire as a "false promise." (Full story)

President Bush said his administration's diplomatic efforts would focus on finding a strategy for confronting Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers.

"Secretary Rice will make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

CountryWatch: Lebanon

Italy, which has been trying to mediate an end to the fighting, said it would hold a conference Wednesday to work out the basis for a truce agreement. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed a beefed-up U.N. force along the Lebanese border, but Israel has called for the Lebanese army to take control of the area.

Annan said the conflict had displaced at least 700,000 Lebanese so far, and Israel's destruction of bridges and roads has made access to them difficult.

"I'm afraid of a major humanitarian disaster," he told CNN.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said it would take more than $100 million to help the displaced. He said he would make an appeal "urging, begging" the international community for contributions.

As part of an effort to avert such a crisis, Israel eased its blockade of Lebanon's ports to allow the first shiploads of aid to arrive. It remained unclear how that aid would get to the isolated towns and villages where the fighting has been centered. (Full story)

Israel has attacked mostly with airstrikes, but small units have crossed the border in recent days and fought with Hezbollah fighters.

A far larger force of about 2,000 troops entered the area Saturday trying to root out Hezbollah bunkers and destroy hidden rocket launchers.

The troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, raced past a U.N. outpost and headed into Maroun al-Ras. Gunfire could be heard coming from the village, and artillery batteries in Israel also fired into the area.

"The forces have completed, more or less, their control of the area of the village, Maroun al-Ras, and made lots of hits against terrorists," said Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of Israel's ground forces. "It was a difficult fight that continued for not a short time."

Dozens of Hezbollah fighters were injured or killed in the battle, Gantz said. Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed Saturday, bringing the total number of acknowledged Hezbollah fighters killed to eight. Israel accuses the group of vastly underreporting its casualties.

The village was strategically important because it overlooked an area where Hezbollah had command posts, Gantz said. The forces seized a cache of weapons and rockets in a village mosque, he added. The village is believed to be a launching point for the rocket attacks on northern Israel.

At one point, a half-ton bomb was dropped on a Hezbollah outpost, about 500 yards from the border and near the village. Other positions were bombarded by Israeli gunboats off the coast.

About 32 residents took refuge at the U.N. observers post. Nearly the entire remaining population of the village — which numbered about 2,300 before the crisis broke out — were believed to have fled, Lebanese security officials said.

Some of the invading forces returned to Israel during the day. U.N. peacekeepers and witnesses said Israel also briefly held the nearby village of Marwaheen before pulling back.

About 35,000 fleeing Lebanese filled Sidon as they searched for a place to stay or a way to get farther north.

"I'm afraid a disaster is going to happen with all these refugees. There's no aid, not from other nations, not from Lebanon," Mayor Abdul-Rahman al-Bizri said.

More than 200,000 Lebanese fled to Syria, according to the Syrian Red Crescent.

A steady stream of foreign nationals boarded ships and planes Saturday to take them away. U.S. officials said more than 7,500 Americans had been evacuated from Lebanon by Saturday night.

"Everybody's crying and kissing and wishing you well, and you have to turn and leave. We have the chance to get out, but they don't," said Susan Abu Hamdan, 44, of Northville, Mich., who was visiting her siblings in Beirut.

The Israeli army said it wanted to completely destroy all Hezbollah infrastructure in an area between a half-mile and two miles from the border, but it had no intention of going deeper into Lebanon.

"We really want to knock out Hezbollah in this area," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman. "We want to wipe them out, and we don't intend for them to ever be there again."

A senior Israeli military official confirmed that Israel did not plan to reoccupy southern Lebanon as it did in 1982-2000 to create a buffer zone to protect northern Israel.

Israel's current offensive began July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid.

Israeli airstrikes on Saturday blasted communications and television transmission towers in the central and northern Lebanese mountains, knocking the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. off the air and killing one person at the station.

The death toll in Lebanon rose to at least 372, Lebanese authorities said.

Over the past 11 days, Hezbollah has launched nearly 1,000 rockets into Israel, killing 15 civilians and sending hundreds of thousands of others fleeing into bunkers. At least 132 rockets landed in Israel on Saturday, wounding 20 people, three seriously, rescue officials said.

A total of 19 Israeli troops have been killed in the fighting so far.

Hezbollah also fired at the army base of Nurit in Israel, wounding one soldier, the army said.

Israel's call for Lebanese to leave much of the area south of the Litani River caused many to fear that a far deeper Israeli ground incursion was being planned, an offensive that would almost certainly lead to far higher casualties.

More than 400,000 people live south of the Litani. Though tens of thousands have left, many are believed still there, trapped by the damaged roads or by fear of being caught in an airstrike.

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