Israel launched its deepest ground attack into Lebanon, and Hezbollah said its guerrillas were fighting Israeli commandos trapped inside a hospital in the eastern city of Baalbek on Wednesday. Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the White House that the Jewish state is "nearing a decision" in its showdown with Hezbollah. However, Peres told reporters it still could be weeks before Israel's military campaign wraps up. Peres added that Israel has been making good progress against the Shiite militia in south Lebanon. He says three-quarters of Hezbollah's long-range rockets have been destroyed, hundreds of guerrillas have been killed and most of the group's bases have been demolished.
The Israeli army would not comment on the operation in the ancient city, which was once a Syrian army headquarters some 130 kilometers north of Israel. The Web site of the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that "helicopters put down IDF (military) commandos near Baalbek," without adding details.
Hezbollah's chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, told The Associated Press that Israeli troops landed near Dar al-Hikma Hospital and that fierce fighting was raging after more than one hour.
Four hours into the operation fighting continued, witnesses said. Israeli warplanes staged more than 10 bombing runs at in the early hours Wednesday around the hospital as well as on hills in east and north Baalbek. The planes also dropped flares over the city while heavy fighting was raging around the hospital, they added.
Shortly after the Israeli air raids began, electricity was cut off, plunging Baalbek and other neighboring villages in total darkness.
The ferocity of the battles in Baalbek and across southern Lebanon, the determination of the Israelis to keep fighting and the minimal diplomatic progress toward a cease-fire all indicate the three-week-old war is more likely to escalate than end soon.
Some wonder why the offensive is taking so long, reports CBS News correspondent Sharon Alfonsi. In 1982, Israeli ground troops seized all of southern Lebanon in 48 hours. This time, it's taken three weeks and Hezbollah is still holding ground and fighting hard.
"The United States is disappointed by the performance of the Israeli military," military analyst Amir Oren told Alfonsi. "It has been less than expected. Nevertheless, U.S. wants Israel to push on."
In other developments:
France is refusing to participate in a meeting of nations that could send troops to help monitor a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, even though it may join - and possibly even lead - such a force. The decision is a setback for the U.N. Security Council as it tries to determine the size and mandate of any peacekeeping force. CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk notes that problems between the U.S. and France, related to differences in views on Iran's role in the region and the funding of Hezbollah, may have contributed to France's refusal to participate in the meetings.
The United Nations canceled several aid convoys to southern Lebanon Tuesday because it couldn't get guarantees of safe passage from Israel, reports CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan.
Israel will target every vehicle carrying weapons from Syria into Lebanon, but is not trying to provoke a war with Syria, Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Tuesday.
Britain and Germany rejected a draft European Union statement Tuesday calling for an immediate cease-fire, diplomats said. Instead, the two nations offered an alternative draft calling for an eventual "cessation of hostilities" — with no time frame given.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, on Tuesday blasted the U.N. Security Council for failing to stop the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, and called the U.S. and Israel "partners in these brutal crimes" against Lebanese civilians.
A senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the hard-line head of the powerful Guardian Council, has called on Muslim states to provide weapons to Hezbollah to fight Israel, an Iranian news agency reported Tuesday.
Israel's air force fired missiles in northern Gaza on Tuesday, killing a 14-year-old boy and wounding four others, Palestinian officials said.
Despite the high civilian casualties in Lebanon, a polls show 85 percent of Israelis are satisfied with the army's actions in Lebanon so far, reports Berger.
In the south, thousands of Israeli troops were operating all along the Israel-Lebanon border on Tuesday. Additional soldiers had crossed into Lebanon during the day, Israeli defense officials said, joining forces already fighting there for three days.
They entered through four different points along the border and progressed at least four miles inside Lebanon. Thousands of reservists, called up over the weekend, also were gathering at staging areas on the Israeli side of the border, ready to join the battles and extend the range of the invasion.
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