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Amid Diplomacy, Israel Deepens Attack

Backed by tanks, Israeli troops battled their way to a key Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon on Monday, seizing a hilltop in heavy fighting and capturing two guerrillas. The U.S. completed its evacuation of 12,000 Americans and said it would switch to bringing in humanitarian aid.

On the 13th day of Israel's offensive, its forces moved one step deeper into Lebanon as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first diplomatic foray since the conflict began — and immediately met resistance.

Rice paid a surprise visit to Beirut on the way to Israel, trying to push a blanket plan that would call for a cease-fire simultaneous with the deployment of international and Lebanese troops into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

Lebanese officials describe those meetings as tense, with Rice repeating the same conditions for a ceasefire that Israel has laid out, CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a prominent Shiite Muslim who has been negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah, rejected the idea and said a cease-fire should be immediate, leaving the other issues for much later. Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora took a similar stance and complained bitterly to Rice about the destruction wreaked by U.S. ally Israel.

Israel "is taking Lebanon backward 50 years and the result will be Lebanon's destruction," he told Rice, the prime minister's office said.

But a day after criticizing Israel for "disproportionate" strikes against civilians, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland accused Hezbollah of "cowardly blending" among Lebanese civilians.

"Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending ... among women and children," Egeland said. "I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men."

Israel appeared to be easing bombardment in populated areas and roads in Lebanon that has killed hundreds, displaced as many as 750,000 and dismembered the transportation network. Instead, it appeared to be focusing its firepower on Hezbollah at the front. Beirut saw no strikes all day in apparent deference to Rice's visit.

As the battle raged on along the border, Logan said both sides seemingly prepared to pay a heavy price — Israeli casualties ran into double figures but they claimed Hezbollah suffered dozens more.

And, as CBS News correspondent Richard Roth reports, Hezbollah's headquarters — its offices and apartments and even its streets — are all mostly just rubble now. But the infrastructure Hezbollah relies on isn't made of concrete and steel.

In other recent developments:

  • President Bush on Monday ordered helicopters and ships to Lebanon to provide humanitarian aid, but he still opposes an immediate cease-fire that could give relief from a 13-day-old Israeli bombing campaign. In announcing the assistance program, White House press secretary Tony Snow said there was no reason to believe an immediate cease-fire would stop violence in the Mideast and said instead that the world should confront the destabilizing force of Hezbollah and its practice of using the Lebanese people as "human shields."
  • Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he wants a meeting Wednesday in Rome on the Mideast violence to agree on a package including a cease-fire, deployment of an international force and the release of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah. Annan's goal is "to keep the U.N. involved in the mediation efforts, even if the international military force is likely to be a NATO or other non-U.N. Force," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk from the U.N., "and because relief aid and humanitarian assistance will most likely have to be distributed by U.N. agencies."
  • Hezbollah's representative in Iran warned Monday that his militant group plans to widen its attacks on Israel. "We are going to make Israel not safe for Israelis. There will be no place they are safe," Hossein Safiadeen told a conference that included the Tehran-based representative of the Palestinian group Hamas and the ambassadors from Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. "You will see a new Middle East in the way of Hezbollah and Islam, not in the way of Rice and Israel."
  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday called for an international military force in southern Lebanon as part of a plan to stop the latest surge in Middle East violence. Blair said "some form of international force in southern Lebanon" should be part of a plan to forge a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas.
  • A group of 300 Americans and 100 other Europeans were believed trapped in villages south of Tyre, said Erik Rattat, a German official involved in the operation. It did not appear that they made it to the ship. An Associated Press reporter at the scene an hour before it left said they had not arrived, and the U.S. Embassy could not immediately say if they had reached the ship in time. Some 11,700 Americans have fled Lebanon, the State Department said. U.S. Consul William Gill said most Americans who wanted to leave had done so by Sunday.
  • Israeli artillery shelled a town in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip on Monday, killing five Palestinians and wounding at least nine people, hospital officials said. The army said militants had fired from Beit Lahiya at least seven rockets at southern Israel on Monday, causing no casualties. The Israeli military said its attacks were aimed at two groups of Hamas militants firing rockets at southern Israel and that it regretted if civilian casualties resulted.
  • An Israeli helicopter crashed in northern Israel near the Lebanese border after hitting an electrical wire while making an emergency landing, causing two casualties and starting a large brush fire atop a hill, the army said.
  • Hezbollah's foundation is religious zeal and popular support, Roth reports. It is a surrogate government that runs clinics and schools and mosques — and is a part of the establishment with 14 seats in parliament.

    Lebanese security officials on Monday reported three civilian deaths, but did not specify where they occurred. Thirty strikes in and around towns and on roads were reported by security officials and Lebanese media — down from 37 the day before.

    The numbers do not include strikes on Hezbollah positions that are not in populated areas. Israel reported 270 strikes on Sunday, suggesting that a large number were in more isolated regions.

    Still, Hezbollah was able to launch 80 rockets into northern Israel, wounding 13 people, a rate only slightly lower than in past days.

    Israel's overall death toll stands at 39, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 22 soldiers killed in the fighting. Sixty-eight soldiers have been wounded, and 255 civilians were injured by rocket fire, officials said.

    On the Lebanese side, security officials said 384 people had been killed, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah guerrillas.

    Israel continued pounding the visible infrastructure of Hezbollah in Lebanon on Monday. CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan reports from Tyre that the Lebanese didn't need a reminder of the danger but the Israelis gave them one anyway: High overhead, two explosions and leaflets filled the sky. The message fluttering down was as simple as it was cold. "This is just the beginning," it said.

    At the front, Israeli ground forces waged a fierce battle Monday with guerrillas dug in at the closest large town to the border, Bint Jbail, known as "the capital of the resistance" for its vehement support of Hezbollah during Israel's 1982-2000 occupation of the south.

    Four Israeli soldiers were killed — two in fighting and two in a helicopter crash — and 20 were wounded, military officials said.

    The army said it captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, the first time it has taken any into custody during the fighting. "When the enemy surrenders, we take them prisoner. The two prisoners are located in Israel and will be held here with the aim of interrogating them," said Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman.

    Nearly constant gunfire and explosions could be heard, and large plumes of gray smoke rose over the area. Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers entered the fray as guerrillas fought back with anti-tank missiles and mortars. Two tanks sped across the rocky hills back into Israel to ferry out wounded soldiers.

    Backed by an intense artillery barrage, troops seized a hilltop inside the town, but the rest of Bint Jbail remained in the hands of up to 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, military officials said.

    An Israeli tank was hit by Hezbollah fire, they said. Hezbollah released no casualty figures. It has claimed 11 dead in the entire campaign, though Israel says it has killed more than 100 of its fighters.

    Israeli military officials say several thousand troops are moving in and out of southern Lebanon, but there are less than that number in there at any one time.

    A day earlier, a Red Cross doctor visited Bint Jbail and reported an unknown number of families hunkered down in schools and mosques for protection, though much of the population of about 30,000 had fled.

    Bint Jbail holds a legendary reputation with Hezbollah, because it was one of three large towns inside Israel's buffer zone and backing for the guerrillas remained strong throughout the occupation. Signs in the town tout its nickname. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah held a large celebration in Bint Jbail, proclaiming that the guerrillas now stood on Israel's border.

    The move into Bint Jbail, about 2.5 miles from the border, represents the spear point of Israel's advance, moving forward from Maroun al-Ras, a frontier village captured in more heavy fighting over the weekend.

    At the same time, Israeli forces were working to destroy every Hezbollah post within a half mile of the 40-mile Israeli-Lebanese border, Israeli Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said.

    The Israeli bombardment hit the southern cities of Tyre and Nabatiyeh. An Israeli shell crashed into a house near the Lebanese town of Marjayoun late Monday, wounding two children, witnesses said.

    President Bush ordered U.S. Navy ships that have ferried nearly 12,000 Americans out of the country the past week to start on Tuesday taking in humanitarian aid for Lebanon. Tens of thousands of refugees are in temporary shelters, supplies of medicine are tight at many hospitals and fuel is slowly running out under Israel's blockade of Lebanon's ports.

    "We are working with Israel and Lebanon to open up humanitarian corridors," press secretary Snow said. So far Israel has loosened its blockade of Lebanese ports to let aid ships into Beirut, but has not defined any safe land routes for convoys to the south.

    Persistent bombardment of southern Beirut has made three hospitals there unusable because staff and supply can't reach them, forcing the evacuation of more than 50 patients. Hospitals in Tyre in Nabatiyeh are forced to take only emergency cases to preserve supplies.

    "Our situation is tragic. Hospitals across Lebanon are suffering medicine and fuel shortages," Lebanese Health Minister Jawad Khalife told The Associated Press.

    The Red Cross sent convoys to Tyre and Marjayoun bearing blankets, generators for hospitals, hygienic supplies and other materials.

    Egeland called on Israel to open the port of Tyre to let in aid ships and guarantee safe passage for relief convoys. An entry point at Tyre would get material directly into the south without a dangerous convoy drive.

    Two ships docked at Beirut and convoys entered from Syria, bearing blankets, food, medicine. Two convoys of trucks took material to the worst-hit areas in the south along dangerous and broken roads.

    Amer Daoudi, Emergency Coordinator for the World Food Program operations in Lebanon, said it was vital to move fast to get aid to the people who needed it most. "We need to reach these people fast. It is bad enough that their lives have been shattered without them having to go hungry as well."

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