Middle East

Fierce Fighting Marks Mideast Conflict

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Thousands of Israeli ground forces pouring into southern Lebanon are meeting strong resistance from Hezbollah guerrillas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says an immediate cease fire is not in Israel's best interest.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris.

We are following two major stories today. One is the situation in Cuba. State television there read a statement from President Fidel Castro this evening. In it, he said that he is in stable condition and good spirits. Castro has temporarily handed over power to his brother Raul after undergoing surgery. We'll have more on that story in a few minutes.

NORRIS: The other big story is the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. There's been new ground combat in south Lebanon today and Israeli troops and helicopters landed near the ancient city of Baalbek in the northeastern part of the country. This comes after Israel's security cabinet approved the expansion of military operations. A senior Israeli commander said his forces have pushed farther north and west. They're now fighting in a broader swath of territory than at any time since the war started three weeks ago.

BLOCK: NPR's Eric Westervelt is near the Israel-Lebanon border. And Eric, what can you tell us about the fighting today?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Melissa, Israel ground forces are fighting from the southern Lebanese village of Ayta al-Shab, eastward to al-Qibay(ph), and by all accounts, Hezbollah continues to put up stiff resistance as they did, Melissa, in previous fights for Bint Jbail and other villages. Today, Israeli infantry, units backed by tanks and air cover, faced some of the toughest fighting in and around al-Tibay(ph) and al-Desa(ph). Soldiers and commanders here say Hezbollah fired mortar rounds, small arms and antitank missiles at the advancing Israeli forces. Three Israeli servicemen, an officer and two soldiers, were killed in the combat and some 25 others were wounded, mostly light wounds. At least five others, Melissa, were wounded today when they took mortar inside Israel along the border.

BLOCK: And what have you learned about the size of the Israeli force that's now fighting in Lebanon and over how wide a range of the country it's operating now?

WESTERVELT: Well, tonight we heard from Israeli Brigadier General Shuki Shahur, who's a senior official in Israel's northern command, which is running the ground operation. He told us that there are at least six ground efforts now inside Lebanon, all consisting of a brigade-strength or larger, mainly infantry forces. An Israeli brigade can be anywhere from 500 to 700 soldiers.

So General Shahur confirmed that there are now more than 3,000 ground troops, at least, working inside Lebanon. He said these forces are, in his words, holding and controlling the terrain, which he emphasized doesn't necessarily mean controlling the villages themselves, but he said they're working from west in and around Ayta alShab, where there was fighting today, eastward to the Hezbollah valley, which is some ten kilometers or six miles away.

He said some forces are already operating along the red line of the former security zone. That's the zone Israel created when it occupied south Lebanon in the '80s and '90s. And some forces, he said, are working beyond that zone and that zone is some 12.5 miles north of the Israeli border. So he's painting a picture of a wider and a broader ground operation than previously confirmed, and he voiced confidence that the operation is moving forward.

But others are saying that they are certainly bypassing some of the built-up areas, some of the villages and there's concern in some quarters that by doing that, they're simply delaying the ground fight for another day.

BLOCK: And briefly, Eric, what are Israeli military commanders saying about recent rocket attacks by Hezbollah?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's been down significantly in the last 48 hours and there are differing theories as to why, Melissa. Some officers are saying it's evidence that these weeks of Israeli air and artillery pounding in south Lebanon is finally paying off. Others are saying that Hezbollah may have used the last 48 hours to simply regroup and prepare for more attacks.

BLOCK: Eric, thanks very much. That's NPR's Eric Westervelt, in northern Israel.

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