IAF strikes religious building in southern Lebanon, 4 wounded
Warplanes target Sidon building run by radical cleric; IDF finds bunkers, rocket launchers in Maroun Ras area.
Israel Air Force warplanes struck Sidon early Sunday, targeting a religious building run by a Shiite Muslim cleric close to Hezbollah in their first hit inside the southern port city, currently swollen with refugees from fighting further south.
Also early Sunday, a huge explosion reverberated across Beirut, apparently caused by an IAF air raid on the capital's southern suburbs.
At least four people were wounded in the airstrike that targeted Sidon for the first time since Israel launched its massive military offensive against Lebanon and Hezbollah militants July 12, hospital officials said.
Strikes early in Israel's campaign hit bridges outside the city of 100,000, where 35,000 refugees are also now residing.
Witnesses said the jets fired two missiles that directly hit the four-story Sayyed al-Zahraa compound in Sidon. The compound, which contains a mosque, a religious library and a seminary, was entirely destroyed but was believed to be empty at the time of the strike, they said.
On Saturday, Israel said it ousted Hezbollah guerrillas from a stronghold just inside Lebanon after several days of fierce fighting as it bombarded targets across the south of the country.
Israel Defense Forces ground forces commander Major-General Benny Gantz said troops took the hilltop village of Maroun Ras, where four soldiers were killed last Thursday, inflicting dozens of casualties on Hezbollah.
IDF troops took positions in the vicinity of Maroun Ras, in southern Lebanon, on Saturday and carried out operations to detect rocket launchers and underground bunkers where Hezbollah militants are holed up.
An IDF soldier sustained light-to-moderate wounds Saturday when Hezbollah fired on an outpost near the Lebanese border.
The IDF renewed its call on the residents south of the Litani river to leave their homes or their lives would be in peril.
Since Friday IDF forces acted in the Maroun Ras village area, north of Moshav Avivim and appear to be taking over the range north of the border with the aim of obstructing the Katyusha fire.
Some 180 rockets were fired in the last few days and three IDF soldiers were wounded, moderately and lightly.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz instructed the IDF on Saturday to continue pressuring Hezbollah to weaken its military and especially rocket deployment. This would enable Israel to achieve a better political agreement that would lead to ending the offensive.
Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said the IDF needs weeks to achieve the operation's goals. "We need time. I don't want to set a date, but we're trying to shorten the operation and still achieve our goals," he said.
Halutz admitted the IDF would not be able to "bring the rocket fire to a complete stop. There will always be some terrorist to fire a missile. But I believe we'll be able to push them north and reduce the accuracy of their fire. The other side must reach the conclusion that the price it pays for continuing the fire is intolerable."
Speaking about the visits of American and European foreign ministers in the area and their influence on the continuation of the operation, Halutz said: "The foreign ministers do not determine our time limit. The Israeli government does that."
Peretz approved the mobilization of 4,600 additional reserve soldiers over the weekend. So far the IDF has mobilized about 18,000 soldiers - about half the reserve soldiers called up in Operation Defensive Shield in the territories, in April 2002.
However, a large number of the infantry forces called up are sent to the territories to replace regular forces that are being sent north.
To the IDF's disappointment, the government rejected the proposal to mobilize an entire division of reserve soldiers to join the fighting in Lebanon.
Northern Command sources said the media reports distort the real situation, in which the IDF has the upper hand in the clashes with Hezbollah. However, initial details of the incident last Friday, in which five IDF soldiers were killed, indicates problems in planning the force's route.
IDF troops uncovered several anti-tank missiles and several surface-to-surface missiles Friday night during an operation in the village of Marwaheen. They also found a machine gun, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and ammunition.
In the town of Marjayun, about five miles (8 km) from the border, cars packed with people waving white flags fled north fearing Israel will step up an 11-day-old war which has killed 351 people, mostly civilians.
Earlier Saturday, IDF troops urged residents of around 10 villages in southern Lebanon to leave by 7 P.M. (1500 GMT) ahead of planned air strikes against suspected Hezbollah guerrillas, military sources said.
"In tackling the terrorists, we have two choices - either to send in troops or to bomb their infrastructure from the air. Clearly the latter is preferable, but we want to give the civilians time to leave," a military source said.
The source said the villagers had been asked to leave via broadcast messages and requests passed to community leaders, and that the deadline had been given "well in advance."
There was no immediate word on how many people were believed to be in the villages after 10 days of fighting in the region.
IAF hits TV transmission towers in LebanonThe Israel Air Force continued its bombardment Friday night and Saturday morning in Lebanon.
IAF jets hit TV transmission towers on Saturday in Lebanon, knocking the nation's leading private network off the air and cutting phone links to some regions.
Fighter bombers fired missiles at transmission stations in the central and northern Lebanese mountains, leaving antennas burning on the ground.
Three missiles hit a transmission station at Fatqa in the Keserwan mountains. Another air strike crippled a transmission tower at Terbol in northern Lebanon, where relay stations for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., Future TV and Hezbollah's Al-Manar are located.
The three stations could no longer be seen in parts of the country although their satellite feed was unaffected. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. is the nation's leading private network.
Hezbollah TV has been targeted previously, during the hostilities that erupted July 12. It went off the air for less than 10 minutes during the pounding.
The transmission of Radio Free Lebanon, a private station, was also disrupted when air strikes hit a tower on a mountaintop in Sannine that was also used by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.
Troops destroyed Hezbollah headquarters, six missile launchers, missile storage facilities, weapon storage facilities, communication lines, and over 40 rocket launch sites.
Over 1,800 targets have been targeted since the beginning of the Israel Defense Forces operations in Lebanon.
The Lebanese Ministry of Public Health reported early Saturday that at least 396 people have been killed and over 1,350 injured since the beginning of operations against Hezbollah.
According to the ministry, fatalities include 20 Lebanese soldiers and six Hezbollah gunmen.
Among the citizens killed are eight Canadians, two Kuwaitis, an Iraqi, a Sri Lankan and a Jordanian.
IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz told reporters in Tel Aviv on Friday that any military incursion into Lebanon would be limited in scope.
"We will fight terror wherever it is because if we do not fight it, it will fight us. If we don't reach it, it will reach us," Halutz said in a nationally televised news conference. "We will also conduct limited ground operations as much as needed in order to harm the terror that harms us."
The IDF's operation plan indicated that the operation would likely take weeks.
"It takes time to hit at terror," Halutz said.
"The restraint which we showed over the course of years is interpreted by those among the terrorists as weakness," the chief of staff said. "On this count, they made a horrible mistake by assuming that we would persist in holding back and restraining ourselves. Our duty as an army was - and we did as such - to recommend a halt to this development, which stems from a sense of us not having an answer."
Halutz said that close to 100 Hezbollah gunmen have been killed over the course of the IDF offensive.
"At this time, I can say that many rocket launchers have been destroyed, terror infrastructures have been destroyed and also nearly 100 Hezbollah terrorists have been killed, from all levels and all ranks," Halutz said. "We will not publish names we know of."
"Fighting against Hezbollah is taking a heavy toll on [the group]," the army chief said. "The fact is that they avoid publishing the number of their losses, the names of their men that were killed, and the fact that they feed the press dishonest information [shows] they are disconnected from reality."
In reference to the recent fighting which claimed the lives of five IDF soldiers, Halutz said: "The events of the last 24 hours are painful, but we are obligated to be tight-lipped and move on. There is a supreme mission before us, a mission to restore security to ourselves, to all citizens of the state of Israel.
The IDF chief added that the army would allow the international community to deliver humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
"We are also opening a counter-corridor for humanitarian aid for the citizens of Lebanon and any country which wishes to do so may coordinate their efforts with the State of Israel by means of the IDF," Halutz said.
On the Palestinian front, Halutz said "we cannot allow a development like the situation we have in Lebanon [to transpire]. It is best we act before the extremist and violent terror infrastructure [in the territories] deepens and takes root. In the Gaza Strip, we acted against terror, all the more forcefully in the last three weeks."
The chief of staff also accused the Shi'ite organization of using mosques to conceal Katyusha rocket launchers.
GOC Northern Command Major General Udi Adam said Friday that Israel is at war and that human life is important, but now is not the time to count the dead.
The Northern Command believes that the fighting in the north will continue for several more weeks, with additional casualties and fatalities.
"We must change our way of thinking. Human life is important, but we are at war, and it costs human lives. We won't count the dead at present, only at the end. We'll cry for the dead and will encourage the fighters. There are more places like Maroun Ras, and unfortunately we'll have to reach them."
Adam refused to disclose details on the number of ground forces operating in southern Lebanon. According to Adam, the operation includes "many" soldiers, but is not a "massive" incursion.
Adam said that 20 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in south Lebanon during clashes in recent days. Four Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed in the clashes Thursday.
According to Adam, soldiers in the village of Maroun Ras found a stockpile of Katyusha rockets in a mosque, as well as weapons used by the militants.
He said that rockets were fired from the vicinity of Maroun Ras at Safed and Tiberias, and that the IDF ground operation in the area may have been one of the factors for fewer Katyusha rockets fired at Israel on Thursday.
When asked about concerns that Israel would sink in the Lebanese mud, Adam said, "I suggest that everyone exercise patience. This is not a short story, but it is not never-ending."
Pointing at a nearby mountain range, Adam said, "Until a week ago, there were Hezbollah militants in this area, and now there aren't." He went on to say that in nine days of fighting, a great deal of Hezbollah infrastructure had been damaged.
IDF calls up thousands of reservistsThe IDF called up additional reserve battalions, sending thousands more soldiers to fight Hezbollah on the northern border and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, the army said Friday.
The decision came on the heels of a significant expansion of the ground operations in the north, as the IDF sent thousands of troops into southern Lebanon on Thursday. Three reserve battalions have already been called up.
The reservists sent to Gaza will free up soldiers in compulsory service to go to the north. The additional soldiers in the north will be deployed to villages in southern Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah-fired rockets aimed at northern Israel fell short of their targets and struck a United Nations observation post near the border, the Israel Defense Forces said Friday. It was not immediately clear if there were any injuries.
On Thursday, four IDF soldiers were killed and five others were wounded, one seriously, in a series of battles just north of Moshav Avivim on the Lebanon border. Three of the soldiers - Benji Hillman, 27, of Ra'anana; Refanel Muskal, 21, of Mazkeret Batya; and Nadav Biloa, 21, of Carmiel - were to be buried Friday afternoon. The IDF said Hezbollah also sustained losses.
The soldiers were part of a force operating not far from the border on Thursday, looking for Hezbollah guerrillas, bases and weapons. They encountered Hezbollah forces, and a heavy exchange of fire followed. The deaths brought to 19 the number of Israeli troops killed in fighting against Hezbolloh since the militant group crossed into Israel and captured two soldiers on July 12.
Around midnight Thursday, a collision between two IAF Apache helicopters west of Kiryat Shmona killed a pilot and wounded three airmen, one seriously, in the worst operational accident since the start of fighting in Lebanon. The IAF has established an inquiry committee to investigate the collision. The pilot - Ran Yehoshua Kochba, 37, from Beit Hananya - was buried at 3 P.M. Friday.
One day after the IAF carried out a massive strike against a bunker complex thought to be the hiding place of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, he appeared in an interview with Al Jazeera on Thursday evening and promised more surprises in the fighting with Israel.
Nasrallah said that Hezbollah's leadership was unharmed by Israel's air strike against the bunker in the Burj al-Brajneh refugee camp, in south Beirut.
IDF sources confirmed that the interview shows that Nasrallah was not injured, but said the fact that he has surfaced may help in collecting intelligence that will lead to his location.