Two IDF Soldiers Killed in South Lebanon Fighting on Thursday

Major (res.) Nimrod Hillel, 32, from Rosh Ha'ayin killed Thurs.; Lebanon: IDF holds 350 Lebanese soldiers captive.

Israel Defense Forces troops were engaged in heavy exchanges of fire with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon on Friday. One soldier sustained moderate to light wounds after an anti-tank missile hit an IDF convoy near the village of Rajamin. A number of Hezbollah fighters were killed in the clashes.

Heavy gun battles continued in the nearby village of Rashef on Friday, and six soldiers sustained light wounds.

Major (res.) Nimrod Hillel, 32, from Rosh Ha'ayin was killed Thursday and another soldier was seriously wounded when anti-tank rockets hit a tank and a bulldozer in the village of Labuneh. Hillel will be laid to rest at 2 P.M. Friday in Rosh Ha'ayin.

Israel and Hezbollah fighters clashed Thursday near the village of Marjayoun and neighboring Khiam and Kila.

Another reservist, Staff Sergeant Alon Smoocha, 35, from Hod Hasharon, was killed when an anti-tank rocket hit a Merkava tank Thursday morning adjacent to Kila.

Lebanon claims IDF troops have captured around 350 Lebanese soldiers and security personnel in a military base in Marjayoun. It appears that there are also Lebanese civilians taking shelter in the base.

The Lebanese interior minister told Arab reporters on Thursday that IDF troops had come to the base, asked to enter it, and then apprehended all of those present. The Al-Jazeera network reported that the IDF had separated the soldiers from the officers and disarmed them.

The Lebanese soldiers who were being held were not members of combat units. The Lebanese minister said his government has called on France and the United States to help release the soldiers.

A reserve armored division began operating before dawn Thursday in the eastern sector. One report indicated relatively little opposition to the IDF entry and soldiers were said to have taken up positions in a village adjacent to Marj Ayoun above the Litani River.

The IDF said the operation in the eastern sector is not part of the plans made Wednesday to expand the ground offensive, but merely a tactical maneuver.

Fifteen IDF soldiers were killed on Wednesday, the army announced early Thursday, as fierce fighting with Hezbollah guerillas raged in the southern Lebanon villages of Ayta al-Shaab and Debel.

The 15 IDF soldiers were killed in a series of firefights across the front. In the most serious incident, nine reserve paratroopers were killed and 11 wounded by anti-tank missiles fired on a house in the village of Debel, in the central sector. Four reservists from an armored brigade were killed in a tank explosion, apparently caused by anti-tank missiles, in the town of Ayta al-Shaab. An infantryman was killed late Wednesday when he was hit by a mortar in Marjayoun.

Another soldier was killed by friendly fire from a tank in the eastern sector of south Lebanon.

Wednesday's incident took place in the village of A-Taibeh. A reserve paratroopers force had taken up position in a home in the village and was mistakenly identified by an IDF tank crew as a Hezbollah cell. The tank then opened fire on the house, killing one of the soldiers.

The IDF will also be investigating whether Staff Sergeant Oren Lifshitz, one of the two paratroopers killed on Tuesday in Bint Jbail, was also hit by friendly fire.

Twenty-five soldiers were wounded in Wednesday's actions, six seriously. Two of the seriously wounded were members of the standing army; the rest of the wounded were reservists.

They were evacuated to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, the Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed and the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya for treatment.

Seven of the soldiers killed on Wednesday were identified Thursday: Sergeant Major Igor Kovalik, 26, of Nazareth Ilit, will be laid to rest at 5.00 P.M. on Thursday in his home town; Captain Gilad Shtokelman, 26, of Timrat; Captain Leon Schmuker, 30, of Beit Nehemiya; Sergeant Major Noam Goldman, 27, of Tel Aviv, will be buried at 5.00 P.M. Thursday at the military cemetery in Kfar Sava; Sergeant Major David Samidov, 25, of Jerusalem; Staff Sergeant Nir Cohen, 22, of Maccabim-Reut; and Staff Sergeant Benny Sela, 24, of Koranit, will be buried at 8.00 P.M. Thursday in the military section at the cemetery in Misgav.

According to the IDF, some 40 Hezbollah fighters were killed on Wednesday. Another 20 or so Hezbollah fighters have been killed over the past two days at Bint Jbail and Tiri, in the western sector.

The guerillas are equipped with anti-tank missiles, which have previously caused losses among the IDF troops in the area.

The fighting, which has raged in the area since Monday night, continued as the security cabinet met in Jerusalem, approving the expansion of the IDF's ground offensive in Lebanon.

Intense fire Wednesday's battles began with an incident at 7:30 A.M. when a reserve paratrooper was killed and 10 of his comrades were wounded - one seriously, one moderately and eight lightly - by friendly fire from an IDF tank in the village of A-Taibeh in the eastern sector of South Lebanon.

At around 1:40 P.M., an IDF Merkava tank was struck by an explosive device in the village of Aita al-Shaab in the western sector. The tank's four crew members were killed instantly. The IDF is still investigating the source of the explosion. The kind of damage sustained by the tank (its turret was blown off) appears to indicate that the vehicle was hit by a large explosive device, but a senior Northern Command officer told Haaretz on Wednesday night that it was more likely that the Merkava had been hit by an anti-tank missile.

IDF troops in the area reported seeing the missile in flight.

Efforts to extract the tank and four dead crew members took place under heavy fire, and continued late into Wednesday night.

The day's harshest incident occured at 2:00 P.M. when one or two anti-tank missiles were fired at an IDF force that had occupied a house in Debel. The missile strike left nine soldiers dead, including two who died on their way to the hospital, and 11 wounded, including three seriously, four moderately and four lightly.

Rescue efforts again were severely hampered by intense Hezbollah gunfire.

Commanders in the sector said Wednesday night that Hezbollah guerrillas were closely following the movement of Israeli forces. They said the group is analyzing the IDF's firing positions, and doing a good job of pinpointing those locations where the forces are exposed.

One issue the IDF will examine in the Debel incident is whether there it was justified to have so many soldiers in the same house.

At 6:30 P.M. Wednesday, an anti-tank missile was fired at an IDF armored personnel carrier in Bint Jbail, seriously wounding two Golani soldiers.

Shortly thereafter, at 7:40 P.M., mortars were launched at an IDF force in Marjayoun, in the eastern sector of South Lebanon, killing one soldier and moderately wounding two others.

Operations in the eastern sector are being carried out by a division, the fourth division-level force operating in South Lebanon. Thus far, the division has been met with relatively little Hezbollah resistance compared to the battles the IDF has been waging against the organization in other sectors.