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Twenty-four Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed and another 11 seriously wounded in heavy clashes Saturday with Hezbollah forces in south Lebanon, after Israel dramatically expanded its ground operation in the area.

Five air crewmen were believed to be dead after an Israel Air Force helicopter was shot down by Hezbollah fire late Saturday, the IDF said. Hezbollah claimed the helicopter was struck by an anti-tank missile. IDF sources confirmed a helicopter had gone down and that the five crewmen were missing.

Eight of the fatalities have been named so far. The funerals of two soldiers were announced: Corporal Ya`ar Ben Giat, 19, of Kibbutz Nahsholim is to be buried at 6.30 P.M. Sunday at the kibbutz' cemetery; Staff Sergeant Tzachi Krips, 20, of Kibbutz Hama'apil is to be buried at 6.30 P.M. Sunday at the kibbutz' cemetery.

The six other fatalities were identified as Corporal Tamer Amer, 20, of Julis; Staff Sergreant Itay Steinberg, 20, of Carmei Yosef; Sergeant Yaniv Temerson, 21, of Tzipori; Sergeant Yosef Abitboul, 19, of Gan Ner; Sergeant Yonathan Ankonina, 21, of Netanya; and Captain Shai Bernstein, 24, of Be'er Sheva.

Under cover of intense artillery fire, IDF forces reached the Litani River, which is some 20 to 30 kilometers inside Lebanon, military officials said Saturday evening.

As part of the expanded operation, IAF helicopters dropped a large number of Israeli troops deep inside Lebanese territory on Saturday, in the largest operation of its kind since 1973.

IDF troops were engaged in heavy exchanges of fire with Hezbollah, as forces thrust northward to the Litani River under cover of intense artillery fire. IDF sources said more than 80 Hezbollah fighters had been killed in the clashes over the weekend, at least 40 of them on Saturday.

Israel has nearly tripled the number of forces in Lebanon as part of its expanded ground war, and expects to fight for another week, despite a United Nations cease-fire resolution, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said Saturday. Halutz said IDF troops would stay in Lebanon until an international force arrives. "We have almost tripled our forces that are operating in Lebanon," Halutz told reporters.

A top IDF official has said that the army will stop its offensive as soon as it is ordered to do so by the political leadership and later it will begin to retrace its steps to uncover any pockets of resistance that may remain in the area.

UN Middle East envoy Alvaro de Soto told Reuters on Saturday the UN force could begin deploying in seven to 10 days, suggesting there is still some time before the "immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations," as called for in the resolution.

At least 23 soldiers taken to Rambam HospitalDozens of soldiers were hurt during the fighting in Lebanon on Saturday. At least 23 of them were taken to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for treatment.

None of the soldiers killed on Saturday were reservists.

An IDF spokeswoman said an IDF officer and two soldiers were killed Saturday when Hezbollah fighters fired an anti-tank missile at their tank.

She said another soldier died when Hezbollah launched a similar attack on a structure in the area where he and other troops had taken position.

Two soldiers from the Golani Brigade were killed in an accident that occured when an IDF tank accidentally ran them over in the village of Shakif-al-Amal in the East. Two other soldiers were wounded in the accident, one seriously and the other lightly.

In the eastern section, one soldier was killed when an anti-tank missile hit his tank close to the village of Kanatra. Another soldier was killed when troops exchanged fire near the village of Hadata on the eastern section.

Three other soldiers were seriously wounded in separate attacks on tanks and an armored vehicle near the villages of Tyre and Dir Sirin.

With the expansion of the ground offensive in Lebanon, four divisions were operating in south Lebanon and most of the activity was focused in areas from where Hezbollah has been firing short-range rockets into Israel. Sources in the IDF General Staff said four to seven days would be needed to complete the occupation of the area.

An IDF soldier was killed in clashes with Hezbollah in the village of Rashef in south Lebanon on Friday and another sustained moderate wounds. According to the IDF, at least ten Hezbollah militants were killed overnight.

IAF strikes and ground assaults kill at least 19 across LebanonIsrael Air Force jets dropped leaflets over Beirut on Saturday with leaflets urging residents to "shake the destroyers of Lebanon off your shoulders," referring to Hezbollah.

IAF strikes and IDF ground attacks continued on Saturday, with missiles and artillery killing at least 19 people across Lebanon, mostly in the south.

The deadliest attack was on homes in the village of Rashef, some 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Israeli border, where at least 15 civilians were killed, security officials said.

Israeli missiles also hit a vehicle in Kharayeb, a village in the Zahrani region about halfway between Beirut and the Israeli border, killing three people and wounding five, officials said.

A Lebanese soldier was killed overnight in an air raid near an army base in the western Bekaa Valley, the army said.

An IAF strike destroyed a road leading to the only remaining border crossing to Syria - Arida, on the northern coast - severing the last escape route for besieged Lebanese and for humanitarian aid entering the country.

IAF jets targeted the highway linking Arida with the northern city of Tripoli, at a point about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the border, officials said. The crossing remained open, but the road leading to it was impassable, and vehicles were spotted driving off-road through ditches early Saturday.

A separate raid destroyed a bridge linking the southern cities of Tyre and Nabatiyeh with Sidon.

Shrapnel from missiles fired on the village of Insariyeh, halfway between Sidon and Tyre, hit a vehicle carrying Lebanese journalists working for a Swedish television channel, and one of them was wounded, security officials said.

IAF jets struck an apartment buildings that house a Hezbollah charity organization in the heart of the eastern city of Baalbek, wounding three people. Another four people were injured in an airstrike on a house west of Baalbek, officials said.

Electricity was out in Tyre and Sidon, after IAF jets struck transformers at power plants in both coastal cities. An official at the power plan in Sidon, George Makhoul, said it could be 10 days before power was restored.

Security officials reported several air strikes in Akkar province, located about 97 kilometers north of Beirut.