Israel tightens grip on Hezbollah stronghold as separate airstrike kill 7 civilians
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israeli troops surrounded and sealed off a southern Lebanese town on Tuesday, encountering fierce resistance from Hezbollah fighters two weeks into a conflict that shows no sign of abating. An Israeli missile strike destroyed a house, killing seven civilians, as rockets rained down on northern Israel.Hundreds of Americans and Russians were reported stranded in the heart of Lebanon’s war zone, after a ship pulled foreign nationals out of a port in the south of the country.In Jerusalem, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said his government was determined to carry on fighting Hezbollah.”We will … stop them. We will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians,” Olmert told reporters before the start of his talks with Rice.For the first time since their offensive began July 12, the Israelis put a limit on how far their troops and tanks would advance in Lebanon. Israeli commander Col. Hemi Livni said Tuesday that Israeli ground troops aimed to destroy the Hezbollah infrastructure “within reach.””That means in southern Lebanon, not going beyond that,” Livni, who commands Israeli troops in the western sector of southern Lebanon, told Israel Army Radio.There was no letup from Hezbollah either. The group’s television channel Al-Manar broadcast Tuesday that its guerrillas were mounting a strong defense in the vicinity of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold that the Israeli have been trying to capture since early Monday.By Tuesday, military officials said Israeli forces had surrounded the town and sealed it off, seizing houses on the outskirts. At least two Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting.Israel appeared to be easing bombardment in populated areas and roads in Lebanon that has killed hundreds, displaced as many as 750,000 and dismembered the transportation network. Instead, it appeared to be focusing its firepower on Hezbollah at the front.On Tuesday Israeli missiles destroyed a house in Nabatiyeh, 16 miles north of Bint Jbail, killing seven people, four from the same people. The motive for the attack was not immediately apparent.Rice, who is on the second leg of a Middle East tour, is pushing a plan that would produce both a cease-fire and the deployment of international and Lebanese troops in southern Lebanon to stop Hezbollah attacks on Israel.In Beirut on Monday, Rice met with disapproval. Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite Muslim politician close to Hezbollah, rejected the U.S. plan, arguing that the cease-fire should be imposed immediately and other issues could follow.Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who government is backed by the U.S., took a similar stance and complained bitterly to Rice that Israeli airstrikes were destroying the country.Israel “is taking Lebanon backward 50 years and the result will be Lebanon’s destruction,” Saniora told Rice, according to the prime minister’s office.When she arrived in Israel, Rice defended the need to ensure that Hezbollah is dislodged from the south Lebanon border region before any cease-fire is declared.”Every peace has to be based on enduring principles,” Rice said Monday.Hezbollah fired at least rockets at the Israeli port city of Haifa on Tuesday, and one hit a city bus and another a house. Two people were hurt, medics said.Hundreds of Americans and Russians were reported trapped in the midst of fighting in the south.The Cypriot ship Princesa Marissa sailed into the southern port city of Tyre and picked up about 300 foreigners stuck there – a joint effort by the U.S., Switzerland, Norway and others, said Erik Rattat, a German official involved in the evacuation.Rattat said 300 Americans were trapped southeast of Tyre on Monday, and had called the U.S. Embassy for help. He said the embassy called him, asking the Cypriot ship to wait as long as possible in hopes the Americans could climb aboard.U.S. officials confirmed they had been trying to get Americans onto the ship, but were unsure if any had made it on time. The last scheduled evacuations of Americans from Lebanon were planned for Wednesday.The U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland appealed for $150 million in aid to Lebanon. He also called on Israel to open Tyre to allow ships to deliver aid to the south of the country.President Bush ordered U.S. Navy ships that have evacuated nearly 12,000 Americans from Lebanon to start delivering humanitarian aid to the country on Tuesday.Two ships docked at Beirut and convoys entered from Syria, bearing blankets, food, medicine – and two convoys of trucks took material to the worst hit areas in the south along dangerous and broken roads.So far Israel has loosened its blockade of Lebanese ports to let aid ships into Beirut, but has not defined any safe land routes for convoys to the south.Tens of thousands of refugees are in temporary shelters, supplies of medicine are tight at many hospitals and fuel is slowly running out under Israel’s blockade of Lebanon’s ports.