Israeli tanks, troops mass on border ahead of entry into south Lebanon
TYRE, Lebanon – Soldiers laid 72 coffins in two trenches, a mass grave for victims of the Israeli bombardment. Elsewhere, mounds of rubble sat undisturbed; rescue workers were too fearful of missiles to search for bodies.Lebanese have streamed out of south Lebanon since fighting erupted between Israel and Hezbollah last week, leaving some villages almost deserted. But many people are believed trapped in their homes – too poor to live anywhere else, too afraid to travel or unable to go because bridges and roads have been destroyed.An estimated 400,000 Lebanese make their home south of the Litani River, 20 miles from the Israeli border, and it’s not known how many remain – but those that do risk being caught up in an Israeli ground offensive against Hezbollah.”It is not looking good and it’s going to last for some time,” Ali Sayegh, a 39-year-old furniture salesman from Tyre, said of the Israeli offensive.Israel massed tanks and troops on the border Friday hours after calling up reserves, as the army announced plans for a ground operation to destroy Hezbollah’s tunnels, hideouts and weapons stashes.With Hezbollah’s rocket attacks and Israeli bombings undiminished, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would visit the Middle East beginning Sunday – her first trip to the region since the crisis erupted 10 days ago. But she ruled out a quick cease-fire between Israel and the Shiite guerrillas as a “false promise.”Israel, which pulled its troops out of Lebanon just six years ago after a lengthy and costly occupation that caused painful divisions within the Jewish state, was poised to carry out its third large-scale ground operation in Lebanon since 1978. This time, however, the Israelis signaled they did not want to stay long.Israel hopes the operation will end in the neutralization of Hezbollah. But the operation carries great risks for the country and the region. If Lebanon’s weak central government is undermined, it could immerse the country again into disorder and ignite fresh passions in many Arab countries against Israel and the United States.On Friday, the Israeli army confirmed that small units have been operating in Lebanon for days. An official from the U.N. monitoring force in south Lebanon said 300 to 500 Israeli troops were believed to be in the western sector of the border, backed by as many as 30 tanks – a likely precursor to a larger ground force that Israel could use to sweep Hezbollah out of the area.Israel’s goal is not to create a buffer zone as it did during its occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, said a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the topic’s military sensitivity.Rather, Israel wants to weaken Hezbollah with a limited ground operation to make it easier for the Lebanese army to move into areas previously controlled by the guerrillas, possibly with the aid of a beefed-up international peacekeeping force, the official said.On Friday, Israel knocked out a key bridge on the road to Syria and pummeled Hezbollah positions in the south as long lines of tanks and armored personnel carriers lined up at the border – in some places close enough to see Lebanese homes on the other side.A barrage of 11 Hezbollah rockets rained down again on Israel’s third-largest city, the northern port of Haifa, wounding at least five people, two seriously. The army said rockets also hit Rosh Pina, Safed and communities near the Sea of Galilee.Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israeli towns from north of the Lebanese border, killing 16 civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to flee repeatedly into bunkers.Rice plans meetings in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as sessions in Rome with representatives of European and moderate Arab governments that are meant to shore up the weak democratic government in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut.”We do seek an end to the current violence, we seek it urgently. We also seek to address the root causes of that violence,” Rice said – a reference to the U.S. position that Hezbollah must not be allowed to rule southern Lebanon with impunity. The group’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a bloody cross-border raid on July 12 touched off Israel’s heaviest bombardment of Lebanon in 24 years.In south Lebanon, soldiers buried 72 people killed in recent bombings in a mass grave just outside a barracks in the city of Tyre. Volunteers put the bodies, many of them children, in wooden coffins and spray-painted the names of the dead on the lids.Ships lined up at Beirut’s port as a massive evacuation effort to pull out Americans and other foreigners picked up speed. U.S. officials said more than 8,000 of the roughly 25,000 Americans in Lebanon would be evacuated by the weekend.France, the United Nations and Red Cross painted a dire portrait of life for civilians trapped in the south or forced to flee their homes there. They demanded Israel open humanitarian corridors to allow life’s necessities – shelter, food, water and medicine – to reach the swelling numbers of displaced people – an estimated half-million.At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he expected a humanitarian corridor for food, medicine and other supplies to be opened later Friday or Saturday.Responding to a U.S. request, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said French aid would be allowed into Lebanon’s port of Sidon.U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland told the U.N. Security Council that “it is estimated that Beirut only has days of fuel supplies remaining.”The Lebanese health ministry reported 362 deaths in Lebanon so far in the onslaught, an increase of 55 since it released figures on Thursday. Thirty-four Israelis also have been killed, including 18 soldiers and an air force officer killed Friday in the collision of two helicopters.Al-Arabiyah television reported that Israeli troops found the body of a fellow soldier in south Lebanon who was killed in clashes the day before in which four other soldiers died.The count of 362 includes six Hezbollah fighters that the group has confirmed were killed, including three who died Friday. Israel’s army chief of staff said Friday that nearly 100 Hezbollah lls ave ben killd in thebann.The Lebanese toll was expected to rise with heavy Israstrike on Frida in Shiite regions of the country’s south andandings were eveled – including one on a commercial street – killileast one prson. But rescue crews were too afraid of the continuaves ofstrikes t search for m Israel warplanes also continued tg to ct off rads, collapsing part of a suspension bridge linkinountain eaks on the Beirut-Damascus highway in central Lebanon, npositios near the border were struck. One post on the Israelis hit and sevrely damaged, though the Ghanian troops inside werey in shelter. A U.N. officer said it was hit by ana rokets strwo more U.N positions on the Lebanese side took direct hits from i artillery,also ausing damage but no casualties, the U.N. obforce saiom the south as well as from its own Shiite southern neigoods,hevily hit by Israeli strikes. They piled up by the hundrearks and schols, hose with enough money staying in hotels. eing increasngly from their homes, fed up with staying indoors eve the onflictlooked ready to escalate. More shops on downtown Hameet ere open, and in the evening familie the seafront, kids rolleng men smokig water-pipes.—Associated Press Writers in Harvey on the Israel-Lebanon border, Lee Keath in Beirut, Stev Naions, Ane Gearan in Washington and Gabe Ross in Haifa, Israel,ribued to ths story.