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Israeli ground troops pushing deeper into Lebanon

Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa)

Tel Aviv/Beirut (dpa) - Israeli forces pushed deeper into south Lebanon Thursday, advancing north and west in an attempt to carve out a six- to eight-kilometre-deep buffer zone free of Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israel also renewed airstrikes on Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon, killing three members of the same family, and by mid-afternoon Hezbollah had fired 32 missiles at the Jewish state.

The Israeli army said troops had established positions around 11 villages, including Majdel Zoun, which, at about six kilometres north of the border and 11 south of Tyre, is the deepest Israeli troops have been operating in Lebanon.

Lebanese security officials said the Israeli infantry and armour were apparently trying to capture three strategic hilltops which would give them a wide view over large parts of the south, from the coastal region of Naqoura inland towards the Hezbollah strongholds of Bint Jbeil, Tebnin and Nabatiyeh.

Lebanese police said the Israeli advance had encountered heavy resistance from Hezbollah guerrillas in recent few days, as intense on-and-off clashes with the Iranian-backed group continued.

Israel sent two more brigades into south Lebanon overnight, to join the five already operating there and bringing the total number of troops north of the border to about 10,000, Israel Army Radio reported.

The aim of the latest Israeli push is to carve out a "security zone" wider than the two- to three-kilometre buffer Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke of last week, and similar to the self- proclaimed "security zone" which Israeli occupied for 18 years in southern Lebanon until its withdrawal in May 2000.

Israel wants to keep control over the zone, and prevent Hezbollah from re-establishing itself there, until the arrival of a multinational force in southern Lebanon, which the United Nations Security Council hopes to authorize in a special session expected next week.

Major Avi Ortal, an operations officer in one of the brigades operating in southern Lebanon, told Israel Army Radio that the aim was to "clean and occupy a very wide strip and move on (from the east and centre of the border) in the direction of the coast."

Israel suffered a number of casualties in fierce fighting Thursday, while Hezbollah lost four dead. An army statement said one Israeli soldier and about 35 armed Hezbollah gunmen were killed in heavy fighting in several villages Wednesday.

In addition to the ground fighting, Israel also attacked from the air, bombing more than 120 targets overnight including southern Beirut, first attacks on the Lebanese capital since Israel agreed to a partial suspension of aerial raids Sunday.

Witnesses reported loud explosions echoing throughout Beirut as Israeli jets raided the Beir al-Abed and Haret Hriek neighbourhoods in its southern suburbs, considered a Hezbollah hotbed and known as "Hezbollah's security square".

The new air raids came after Hezbollah launched a record number of missiles - 231 - at northern Israeli towns and villages Wednesday.

The army claimed the targets hit overnight included buildings used by Hezbollah as offices and to store weapons as well as areas from which the guerrillas launch rockets into Israel.

Israel also said it had hit six missile launchers and a vehicle it claimed was transporting weapons.

In eastern Lebanon, Israeli jets also destroyed a bridge linking the town of Hermel with the ancient city of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.

"The Israelis are destroying any possible bridge that Hezbollah might use to transfer fighters or weapons," a security source in the area said.

In northern Lebanon, warplanes carried out a strike in the region of Akkar, near the Syrian border, the second in 24 hours after two bridges were hit there early Wednesday, police said.

Israel jets also raided several villages in southern Lebanon, including areas where the ground troops are fighting.

People have fled southern Lebanon and southern Beirut since Israel started its massive onslaught on Lebanon on July 12th, following a Hezbollah cross-border raid in which two Israeli soldiers were abducted and eight killed.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora told an emergency meeting of the world's leading Islamic countries in a video message Thursday that 900 people had been killed in Lebanon so far as a result of Israeli attacks.

Hospital and other sources were saying that well over 600 people had been killed in Lebanon since the start of the Israeli attacks on July 12, but many bodies are believed to be still buried under rubble.

The Israeli army says that 300 of the Lebanese fatalities are Hezbollah fighters, but the Iranian-backed organization will admit to only 43 dead since the start of the fighting.

Israeli fatalities stand at 56. Of them, 19 are civilians killed by Hezbollah missiles, and 37 are soldiers killed in the fighting.

Copyright 2006 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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