Tanks, bulldozers and armored personnel carriers knocked down a fence and barreled over the Israel-Lebanon border Saturday as Israeli forces stepped up a small-scale ground offensive into southern Lebanon to try to cripple the Hezbollah guerrilla group.
The soldiers battled Hezbollah militants throughout the day, and raided the large Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras in several waves before seizing control, military officials said. Tens of thousands of Lebanese fleeing north packed into the port of Sidon to escape the fighting.
The growing use of ground forces, 11 days into the fighting, signaled Israeli recognition that its airstrikes alone were not enough to force Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon. But a ground offensive carries greater risks to Israeli forces, which have already lost 18 soldiers in the recent fighting. And it 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 four miles wide and 11 miles deep.
A force of about 2,000 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 mosque in the village, he added.
After Israel seized Maroun al-Ras, which is believed to be a launching point for the rocket attacks on northern Israel, several small groups of Israeli soldiers in armored personal carriers traveled to and from the village. U.N. peacekeepers and witnesses said the Israeli forces briefly held the nearby village of Marwaheen before pulling back.
The Israeli army said it wanted to completely destroy all Hezbollah infrastructure in an area between a half-mile to two miles from the border, but it had no intention of going deeper into Lebanon than that.
"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 from 1982 to 2000 to create a buffer zone to protect northern Israel.
In other recent developments:
The Palestinian officials said the unilateral cease-fire is aimed at ending an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip that began June 28, three days after militants raided an Israeli army post, killing two soldiers and capturing one, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
More than 100 Palestinians have been killed since then in daily attacks by Israeli warplanes, tanks and artillery in the offensive, and the militants have fired hundreds of homemade rockets at southern Israel.
The agreement was reached in Gaza City following meetings sponsored by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh aimed at finding a way out of the crisis in Gaza, the officials said. Several Palestinian militant groups attended, including Haniyeh's Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have been blamed for many of the rocket attacks on southern Israel, the officials said on condition of anonymously because the agreement was reached at a closed meeting.
But three guerrilla groups said no agreement had been reached.
Abu Kosai, a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Brigades, said: "This report is baseless. We are going to continue launching our rockets toward the Zionist communities as long as the aggression continues. As long as the aggression exists, it's our right to respond."
He also said, "We made contacts with all our brothers who are working in the military field who knew nothing about this report and this agreement."
Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said: "This is a completely false report. Resistance will continue because the aggression exists and rockets are one of the tools we use in this resistance."
Hamas official Osama Muzaini denied knowledge of a cease-fire, saying the militant groups only respond to Israeli attacks.
"Let the enemy stop its attacks on our land," he said.
The Israeli Defense Forces said it had no immediate comment about the reported cease-fire.
In fighting in Gaza on Friday, four people were killed — a Hamas activist and three relatives — in an explosion at his home in Gaza City, hospital officials said. Palestinians said the house was hit by an Israeli tank shell. The Israeli military denied using artillery or tanks.