BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Backed by tanks, Israeli troops battled their way to a key Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon on Monday, seizing a hilltop in heavy fighting and capturing two guerrillas. The U.S. completed its evacuation of 12,000 Americans and said it would switch to bringing in humanitarian aid.

On the 13th day of Israel’s offensive, its forces moved one step deeper into Lebanon as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first diplomatic foray since the conflict began – and immediately met resistance.

The tangled knots in the negotiations meant fighting was likely to drag on just as the pace of Hezbollah rockets raining down on Israel shows no signs of letting up despite the aerial bombardment of its positions. Air power alone is proving insufficient to rout the guerrillas, who are tough opponents on the ground as well. Mideast observers say Hezbollah only has to remain standing – not beat Israel – to emerge victorious in Arab eyes.

Rice paid a surprise visit to Beirut on the way to Israel, trying to push a blanket plan that would call for a cease-fire simultaneous with the deployment of international and Lebanese troops into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a prominent Shiite Muslim who has been negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah, rejected the idea and said a cease-fire should be immediate, leaving the other issues for much later. Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora took a similar stance and complained bitterly to Rice about the destruction wreaked by U.S. ally Israel.

Israel “is taking Lebanon backward 50 years and the result will be Lebanon’s destruction,” he told Rice, the prime minister’s office said.

But a day after criticizing Israel for “disproportionate” strikes against civilians, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland accused Hezbollah of “cowardly blending” among Lebanese civilians.

“Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending … among women and children,” Egeland said. “I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don’t think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men.”

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. Beirut saw no strikes all day in apparent deference to Rice’s visit.

3 civilians die

Lebanese security officials reported three civilian deaths, without specifying where they occurred. Thirty strikes in and around towns and on roads were reported by security officials and Lebanese media – down from 37 the day before.

The numbers do not include strikes on Hezbollah positions that are not in populated areas. Israel reported 270 strikes on Sunday, suggesting that a large number were in more isolated regions.

Still, Hezbollah was able to launch 80 rockets into northern Israel, wounding 13 people, a rate only slightly lower than in past days.

Israel’s overall death toll stands at 40, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 23 soldiers killed in the fighting. Sixty-eight soldiers have been wounded, and 255 civilians injured by rocket fire, officials said.

On the Lebanese side, security officials said 384 people had been killed, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah guerrillas.

Israeli military officials say several thousand troops are moving in and out of southern Lebanon, but there are fewer there at any one time.

At the front, Israeli ground forces waged a fierce battle Monday with guerrillas dug in at the closest large town to the border, Bint Jbail, known as “the capital of the resistance” for its vehement support of Hezbollah during Israel’s 1982-2000 occupation of the south.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed – two in fighting and two in a helicopter crash – and 20 were wounded, military officials said.

Four U.N. peacekeepers were wounded, one of them seriously, when they were caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon, the U.N. said.

The army said it captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, the first time it has taken any into custody during the fighting. “When the enemy surrenders, we take them prisoner. The two prisoners are located in Israel and will be held here with the aim of interrogating them,” said Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman.

Nearly constant gunfire and explosions could be heard, and large plumes of gray smoke rose over the area. Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers entered the fray as guerrillas fought back with anti-tank missiles and mortars. Two tanks sped across the rocky hills back into Israel to ferry out wounded soldiers.

Backed by an intense artillery barrage, troops seized a hilltop inside the town, but the rest of Bint Jbail remained in the hands of up to 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, military officials said.

An Israeli tank was hit by Hezbollah fire, they said. Hezbollah released no casualty figures. It has claimed 11 dead in the entire campaign, though Israel says it has killed more than 100 of its fighters.

A day earlier, a Red Cross doctor visited Bint Jbail and reported an unknown number of families hunkered down in schools and mosques for protection, though much of the population of about 30,000 had fled.

Bint Jbail holds a legendary reputation with Hezbollah, because it was one of three large towns inside Israel’s buffer zone and backing for the guerrillas remained strong throughout the occupation. Signs in the town tout its nickname. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah held a large celebration in Bint Jbail, proclaiming that the guerrillas now stood on Israel’s border.

The move into Bint Jbail, about 2.5 miles from the border, represents the spear point of Israel’s advance, moving forward from Maroun al-Ras, a frontier village captured in more heavy fighting over the weekend.

At the same time, Israeli forces were working to destroy every Hezbollah post within a half mile of the 40-mile Israeli-Lebanese border, Israeli Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot said.

The Israeli bombardment hit the southern cities of Tyre and Nabatiyeh. An Israeli shell crashed into a house near the Lebanese town of Marjayoun late Monday, wounding two children, witnesses said.

President Bush ordered U.S. Navy ships that have ferried nearly 12,000 Americans out of the country the past week to start on Tuesday taking in humanitarian aid for Lebanon. Tens of thousands of refugees are in temporary shelters, supplies of medicine are tight at many hospitals and fuel is slowly running out.

“We are working with Israel and Lebanon to open up humanitarian corridors,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. 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.

At a hospital in Tyre, where Israeli rockets frequently hit nearby, dirty bandages hid the worst of 8-year-old Zainab Jawad’s swollen, bloodied nose. Her arm was strapped to her chest and fractured in two places.

Stretched out on a bed at Najem Hospital, Zainab squeezed shut her brown eyes as memories of the attack flooded back, some of her words muffled as she fought sobs.

A day earlier, Israeli bombs destroyed her family’s home in the southern village of Ayta Chaeb. Then rockets slammed into the car as they fled.

“I don’t want to remember, but I can’t help it. What I remember most is the sound, the sound of the planes and I was scared because I thought there were so many,” she said. “I fell asleep last night, but all I could hear in my sleep were planes.”

Associated Press reporters Katherine Shrader traveling with Rice, Benjamin Harvey on the Israel-Lebanon border, Kathy Gannon in Tyre and Hussein Dakroub and Lauren Frayer in Beirut contributed to this report.

AP-ES-07-24-06 2135EDT

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