Deadly Fighting In South Lebanon

Lebanese soldiers stand next to a smouldering armored vehicle that was hit in a missile strike during an Israeli army raid in the port city of Tyre, southern Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006.
Israeli commandos raided an apartment building in this southern Lebanese port city Saturday, battling Hezbollah guerrillas, and warplanes blasted south Beirut. The fighting across the country killed at least eight Lebanese and an Israeli soldier.

After days of desultory diplomacy, Washington has said it was near an agreement with France on a U.N. cease-fire resolution, possibly by early next week. But no cessation of fighting was in sight Saturday.

Given the determination of both Hezbollah and Israel to look victorious when the conflict finally ends, the worst of the fighting may still lay ahead with the militant Shiite guerrilla fighters perhaps making good on its threat to rocket the main Israeli metropolis of Tel Aviv and Israel launching an all-out ground offensive, pushing northward to the Litani River about 20 miles from the border.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch met with Lebanese officials in Beirut, trying to pave the way for an end to hostilities. He held talks Friday night with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

On Saturday, he visited Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a prominent Shiite Muslim who has been negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah in the conflict.

In other developments:

  • A top Saudi Sunni cleric, whose ideas inspired Osama bin Laden, issued a religious edict Saturday disavowing the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah, evidence that a rift remains among Muslims over the fighting in Lebanon. Hezbollah, which translates as "the party of God," is actually "the party of the devil," said Sheik Safar al-Hawali, whose radical views made the al-Qaeda leader one of his followers in the past.
  • Three Hezbollah rockets hit near the Israeli town of Hadera, about 50 miles south of the Lebanese border, police said. The strike Friday was the deepest inside Israel to date in the fighting between the Jewish state and the Lebanon-based militants. No casualties were immediately reported.
  • As of Friday the Associated Press count showed at least 568 Lebanese have been killed, including 489 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry, 29 Lebanese soldiers and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said that 1 million people or about a quarter of Lebanon's population, has fled the fighting. Others estimate some 800,000 Lebanese have been made refugee. The Lebanese government's Higher Relief Council said 907 Lebanese had been killed in the conflict.
  • Since the fighting started, 75 Israelis have been killed, 45 soldiers and 30 civilians. More than 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north, Israeli officials said.
  • There were more demonstrations around the region in support of Hezbollah on Friday, the biggest in Baghdad where tens of thousands of Shiites rallied in a protest organized by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

    The raid in Tyre was the latest Israeli commando operation deep inside Lebanese territory aimed at taking out Hezbollah strong points even as heavy fighting raged closer to the border.

    Both Israel and Hezbollah claimed victory in the Tyre battle, with Israel claiming it was "very successful" in taking out a key guerrilla unit involved in firing long-range rockets into Israel. Hezbollah claimed it had successfully repulsed the assault.

    The commandos landed from the sea in an orchard before dawn and cut through a barbed wire fence to advance on the apartment building, sparking a fierce gunbattle with those inside that lasted several hours.

    Later, pools of blood were seen in the orchard, through which the Israelis evacuated their wounded. A corner apartment in the building was left charred, with furniture melted from the heat of a rocket that slammed into it. The building's stairs and pavement outside were stained with blood and littered with bullets from the fighting.

    At least five Lebanese, including a soldier at a nearby checkpoint, were killed in the raid, the Lebanese military said. Rescue workers reported six dead, including at least two Hezbollah fighters. The Israeli military reported eight soldiers wounded, two seriously, while Hezbollah claimed an Israeli soldier was killed in the fight.

    A resident said he saw the commando force attack the building. "They all had beards. I thought maybe they were Hezbollah," 18-year-old Qassem Aad said of the Israelis.

    Aad said he saw several people walk out of the building with their hands up, and that shooting then erupted. "I saw a man screaming, he was shot."

    In a separate incident, a missile fired by an Israeli drone killed two people riding a motorcycle near al-Bass, on the outskirts of Tyre, the Lebanese military said.

    The Israeli military said the Tyre raid aimed to take out a Hezbollah unit that had been firing long-range rockets, a day after the guerrillas fired their deepest barrage yet into Israel, hitting the town of Hadera, some 50 miles south of the border.

    A senior Israeli naval officer said the raiding force shot two or three Hezbollah commanders in the apartment building as well as six or seven other guerrillas when returning fire as the Israelis were withdrawing. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity under briefing regulations.

    Meanwhile, loud explosions resounded in Beirut as Israeli warplanes renewed their strikes on Hezbollah strongholds in the city's southern suburbs. Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said four people were killed in the bombing.

    In eastern Lebanon, a gutted van with the charred body of the driver was found Saturday morning in a field near Qaa, the town's mayor, Saadeh Toum, said. Travelers have been taking dirt roads to travel from one place to another because of bombardment of the main roads in the region.

    Nearby, Hezbollah mortars hit two vehicles of an Israeli engineering corps during heavy fighting around a village in the Taibeh area, the scene of a major Israeli ground assault in recent days. An Israeli soldier was killed and nine others wounded, the military said.

    While meeting fierce resistance on the ground in south Lebanon, the Israeli army said it had taken up positions in or near 11 towns and villages as part its effort to carve out a 5-mile Hezbollah-free zone.

    "We plan to carry out the whole mission," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said. "Hezbollah must not have illusions that we plan to give in. (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah shouldn't doubt that he faces a force that insists on completing its mission."