BOURJ AL-MULOUK, Lebanon – Israel on Wednesday sent 8,000 ground troops across the border into southern Lebanon as commandos staged an air assault on a Hezbollah stronghold, killing 10 guerrillas and capturing five more.
Hezbollah retaliated by sending a record number of rockets into northern Israel, wounding 17 and killing one.
The escalation in the conflict came as the United Nations announced it had again postponed a meeting of nations that could contribute troops to help stabilize south Lebanon, saying it was premature to talk about deploying peacekeepers before obtaining a cease-fire and imposing a plan for peace between Israel and Hezbollah.
The announcement came as diplomats claimed substantial progress on just such a plan — one that includes halting the fighting, disarming Hezbollah and deploying peacekeepers in a buffer zone in south Lebanon.
But France, which is considered a possible leader of a peacekeeping force, has refused to take part in the meeting of nations willing to contribute troops until the Security Council adopts the French-proposed draft resolution that would impose that framework for peace and lay the conditions for a peacekeeping force.
The Human Rights Watch said Wednesday it has confirmed 28 deaths in last week's bombing of a shelter in Qana, Lebanon, by Israel warplanes. It has been reported that close to 60 people died in the attack that killed mostly women and children. Of the confirmed deaths, 16 of them are children.
Initially 54 people were estimated to be dead, based on a registry of 63 people in the shelter. Rescue teams have located 9 survivors, and it appears 22 people escaped the basement of the shelter, Human Rights Watch said in a press release received by FOX News.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said the ground forces crossed the border at four different points and were aiming to reach four miles into Lebanon by Thursday. Thousands more were gathering at staging areas on the Israeli side of the border, ready to join the battles.
The soldiers were pushing Hezbollah fighters out of southern Lebanon one village at a time, according to Israeli military officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Earlier this week Israeli officials said troops would go as far as the Litani River, about 18 miles from the border, and secure the area until an international peacekeeping force could deploy.
Israeli airborne commandos flew in by helicopter to raid the northern town of Baalbek, on the border with Syria, killing 10 Hezbollah guerrillas and capturing another five.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the captured Hezbollah fighters "very tasty fish," but an Israeli official told FOX News they were not the high-value targets that had been sought.
A Hezbollah spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements to the media, confirmed Israeli troops had captured "four or five" people.
He denied they were Hezbollah fighters, saying one was a 60-year-old grocery store owner, and two others, the grocer's relatives, work in construction.
Witnesses said Israeli forces partially destroyed the Dar al-Hikma hospital in Baalbek, where chief Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Rahal said fierce fighting raged for more than one hour.
Hezbollah used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and fought the commandos inside the Dar al-Hikma hospital, while Israeli jets attacked the surrounding guerrilla force with missiles, Rahal said.
Olmert said though the scene of the fighting is called a hospital, "there are no patients there and there is no hospital, this is a base of the Hezbollah in disguise."
The hospital, which residents said is financed by an Iranian charity that is close to Hezbollah, was empty of patients at the time of the raid, the guerrilla group said.
"It was empty last night, there was no one there," said the anonymous spokesman.
One of a series of air raids struck the village of Al Jamaliyeh, a little under a mile from the hospital. A missile hit the house of the village's mayor, Hussein Jamaleddin, instantly killing his son, brother, and five other relatives.
"Where is the press? Where is the media to see this massacre? Count our dead. Count our body parts," Jamaleddin told The Associated Press on the telephone, minutes after the missile strike.
A family of seven — a mother, father and their five children — were killed in another air raid on an area near Al Jamaliyeh, witnesses said. A van driver was also killed when another missile struck nearby.
Fighting ended at about 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) as precarious calm prevailed in Baalbek, residents said.
Hezbollah guerrillas hit back, firing over 200 rockets at towns across northern Israel, wounding at least 17 people and killing one, Israeli police said.
A FOX News reporter in the coastal town of Tyre about 7 miles from the Lebanon border saw at least 20 rockets fly overhead heading toward Israel. After every rocket volley, Israeli artillery would return fire, with shells landing every few minutes.
In northern Israel, a FOX News reporter witnessed Hezbollah guerrillas approach the border near the town of Hula, fire a salvo of rockets and then withdraw. This pattern was repeated in 90-minute intervals until shelling from Israeli artillery units consistently blanketed the hills around Hula.
Israel medics said one of the rockets hit near the town of Beit Shean, the deepest rocket strike into Israel so far. Witnesses in Israel also reported that a Hezbollah rocket hit the West Bank for the first time, striking between the villages of Fakua and Jalboun, near Beit Shean.
Hezbollah said they landed a Khaibar-1 rocket near Beit Shean and Israel, which claims the rocket is Iranian-made, confirmed the hit.
Beit Shean is about 42 miles south of the Lebanese border.
A 52-year-old Israeli man riding his bike near the Israeli border town of Nahariya was killed by a rocket, medics said.
In an attack on the Lebanese army, Israeli jets fired at least one missile on a base in the village of Sarba, in the Iqlim al Tuffah province, a highland region where Hezbollah is also believed to have offices and bases. One soldier was killed, bringing to 26 the number of Lebanese soldiers killed since the start of the Israeli offensive against Lebanon on July 12.
The Lebanese military has largely stayed out of the three-week-old conflict, though has said it will fight if Israel launches a wide-scale invasion, and Israeli warplanes have repeatedly attacked soldiers. It was not clear what prompted the airstrike on the army base.
In an incident denied by the Israeli military, Hezbollah said in a statement that it had attacked an Israeli army armored unit that crossed into Lebanon on Wednesday morning, destroying two tanks and leaving their crews dead or wounded.
The Israelis want to keep Hezbollah off the border so their patrols and civilians along the fence are not in danger of attack, such as the July 12 raid in which guerrillas killed three soldiers and seized two others. The army also hopes to push Hezbollah far enough north so that most of the guerrillas' rockets cannot reach the Jewish state.
In Geneva, the U.N.'s World Food Program said Israel had agreed to permit two oil tankers to sail into Lebanon to ease a growing fuel crisis in the country.
At least 540 Lebanese have been killed, including 468 civilians and 26 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah guerrillas. The health minister says the toll could be as high as 750, including those still buried in rubble or missing. Fifty-five Israelis have died — 36 soldiers as well as 19 civilians killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks.
The United Nations also warned that the longer a spill of 110,000 barrels of oil is not cleaned up from Lebanon's coast, the more severe the environmental impact will be. The oil spilled two weeks ago after Israeli warplanes hit a coastal power plant.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.