Israel Seeks 'Security Zone' at Lebanese Border

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Hezbollah militants continue to hit towns in northern Israel with rocket fire and Israeli military forces are battling to establish what they call a "security zone" in southern Lebanon — including the occupation of several border villages dominated by Hezbollah.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Rome today, foreign ministers from the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East met to deal with the continuing fight in Lebanon. Although some countries called for an immediate cease-fire, the U.S. insisted a long-term plan is essential.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not downplay the urgency of the situation.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State): We all committed to dedicated and urgent action to try and bring about an end to this violence that indeed would be sustainable, and that would leave the Lebanese government with the prospect of full control of its country.

This is very important. We cannot - and I heard it many, many times during this conference - we cannot return to the status quo ante.

CHADWICK: That's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking in Rome.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

In southern Lebanon today, there's been intense ground fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerillas. NPR's Eric Westervelt is on the Israel-Lebanon border and joins us now.

Eric, what have you been seeing and hearing and learning about today?

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Well, Noah, I'm speaking to you from Avivin, a small village on the Israel-Lebanon border. It's just a few miles inside Lebanon today, Israeli ground forces have met stiff resistance from Hezbollah guerillas inside Bint Jbeil.

Here's what we know so far. Israeli officers here tell us that this mounted infantry - soldiers who stepped out of their armored vehicles to search on the ground for Hezbollah positions - came under small arms and machine gun fire from inside the town during this pre-dawn operation.

They took heavy fire, they say, from neighboring villages as well. We're told that most of the troops were on foot because there were fears that there were lots of land mines placed by Hezbollah for tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The fighting, by all accounts, was fierce. It was ground combat. There's one Israeli army major put it, we had to move step by step, house to house, to get the terrorists, unquote. Another said, we ran into a wasp's nest.

ADAMS: A wasp's nest. The fight for this town, Bint Jbeil, and another town on Wednesday have been tough going for the Israelis. I've heard you describe the Israeli army as highly technical, very sophisticated in makeup. Is it their kind of fighting?

WESTERVELT: Well, this is a high-tech, modern army. And they've pounded south Lebanon and Hezbollah positions from the air and with artillery now for two weeks. And the ground operation - they expected, I believe - to be a little smoother than it is.

An Israeli military spokesman today said we do not have control of Bint Jbeil. Now that's a backtrack from yesterday, when some officers here said the army has the town surrounded, and - in their words - largely under control.

So obviously, from today's heavy fighting - and there were a number of casualties, up to 30 wounded, some seriously - that's clearly not the case.

It's been a tough fight, as well, Noah, trying to capture the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras. It's just inside the border. I'm looking at the village right now. And today, we've seen some plumes of smoke from some limited artillery fire into this town that Israel said it took control of over the weekend. So, they're still fighting in this area that they said they had taken control of.

ADAMS: And yesterday, Israeli planes hit the United Nations outpost there in southern Lebanon, well-established outposts. Four U.N. observers were killed. Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said it was apparently deliberate. That was his term.

What are the Israelis saying now about this?

WESTERVELT: Israeli army officials say that if it was their bombing - and they say it's not entirely clear that it is and that they've opened an investigation - they are deeply sorry and regret the casualties.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed sorrow for the loss and said he would open up an investigation. But he also expressed some anger that Kofi Annan would suggest that this was a deliberate attack.

But others on the ground are angry at what happened and want some answers.

ADAMS: NPR's Eric Westervelt talking with us from the Israel Lebanon border. Thank you Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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