BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Israel launched a major attack deep into Lebanon, and Hezbollah said its guerrillas were fighting Israeli commandos trapped inside a hospital in the eastern city of Baalbek early today.

The Israeli army would not comment on the operation in the ancient city, which was once a Syrian army headquarters some 80 miles north of Israel. The Web site of the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that “helicopters put down IDF (military) commandos near Baalbek,” without adding details.

The ferocity of the battles in Baalbek and across southern Lebanon on Tuesday, the determination of the Israelis to keep fighting and the minimal diplomatic progress toward a cease-fire all indicate the 3-week-old war is more likely to escalate than end soon.

Hezbollah’s chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, told The Associated Press Israeli troops landed near Dar al-Hikma Hospital.

Four hours into the operation, fighting continued, witnesses said. By early this morning, Israeli warplanes had staged more than 10 bombing runs around the hospital as well as on hills in east and north Baalbek. The planes dropped flares over the city while heavy fighting raged around the hospital, they said.

“A group of Israeli commandos was brought to the hospital by a helicopter. They entered the hospital and are trapped inside as our fighters opened fire on them, and fierce fighting is still raging,” Rahal said.

He dismissed as “untrue” reports that the Israeli commandos managed to snatch some patients from the hospital and spirit them away in helicopters. Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid triggered the Israeli offensive.

Baalbek, about 10 miles from the Syrian border, is a city with spectacular Roman ruins as well as the barracks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards when they trained Hezbollah guerrillas there in the 1980s.

The last time Israel forces were known to have gone that far on the ground into Lebanon was in 1994, when they abducted Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani, hoping to use him to get information about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad. Dirani was released in a prisoner exchange 10 years later.

In southern Lebanon on Tuesday, troops battled guerrillas after Israel ordered its army to punch all the way to the Litani River. Thousands of troops were operating along the Israel-Lebanon border. Additional soldiers crossed into Lebanon on Tuesday, Israeli defense officials said, joining forces already fighting there.

They entered through four different points along the border and moved at least four miles inside Lebanon. Thousands of reservists, called up over the weekend, also were gathering at staging areas on the Israeli side of the border, ready to join the battles and extend the invasion.

Israeli officials said their soldiers were to go as far as the Litani, about 18 miles from the border, and hold the ground until an international peacekeeping force comes ashore.

But the army later said it had distributed leaflets northeast of the river at villages where Hezbollah was active. The leaflets told people to leave, suggesting that the new offensive could take Israeli soldiers even deeper into Lebanon.

Despite mounting civilian deaths, President Bush held fast to support for Israel and was pressing for a U.N. resolution linking a cease-fire with a broader plan for peace in the Middle East. Staking out a different approach, European Union foreign ministers called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” followed by efforts to agree on a sustainable cease-fire.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was not in Israel’s interest to agree to an immediate cease-fire because every day of fighting weakens the guerrillas.

“Every additional day is a day that drains the strength of this cruel enemy,” he said. “Every extra day is a day in which the (army) reduces their capability, contains their firing ability and their ability to hit in the future.”

The Israelis want to keep Hezbollah off the border so their patrols and civilians along the fence are not in danger of attack. The army also hopes to push Hezbollah far enough north so that most of the guerrillas’ rockets cannot reach the Jewish state.

Israel resumed sporadic airstrikes – hitting Hezbollah strongholds and supply lines from one end of Lebanon to the other – despite a pledge to suspend such attacks for another day in response to world outrage over the killing of 56 Lebanese in a weekend bombing.

Aid groups had hoped to take advantage of the supposed 48-hour lull in airstrikes to get food and medicine to civilians trapped in the south. But Israel denied access to two U.N. convoys. Others who made the journey described airstrikes close to their convoys, and bodies along the road.

Hezbollah fired just 10 rockets across the border Tuesday, well below an average of about 100 a day since the fighting began 21 days ago, Israel said.

But the ground battles were intense.

At nightfall Tuesday, Israeli troops were fighting Hezbollah at several points along the border. Reporters and Arab television reported especially heavy fighting and Israeli artillery bombardment at the village of Aita al-Shaab.

The Israeli army said late Tuesday that three Israeli soldiers died and 25 were slightly wounded by small arms fire and anti-tank rockets in Aita al-Shaab.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said the fighting to date had killed about 300 of Hezbollah’s main force of 2,000 fighters, which does not include its less-well trained reserves. “That’s a very hard blow,” he said.

Hezbollah has said only 46 of its fighters were killed. Four were lost in battles with Israeli ground troops in Adaisse and Taibeh, near the Christian town of Marjayoun, about five miles from the border with Israel, Hezbollah said.

To the east at Kfar Kila, reporters saw at least three airstrikes, and the thud of artillery shells from Israeli ground troops was constant. About 20 shells landed in the hills around Kfar Kila during a 45-minute period.

Israeli jet fighters also struck deep inside Lebanese territory, hitting Hermel, 75 miles north of the Israeli border in the Bekaa Valley. Warplanes fired at least five air-to-surface missiles on the edge of the town, targeting a road linking eastern Lebanon to western regions and the coastline.

Six hours later, warplanes returned to Hermel, hitting a pickup truck loaded with cooking gas tanks, security officials said. The canisters exploded, sending flames shooting up from the vehicle for nearly an hour. The driver was out of the truck and not hurt.

In the west, Israeli warships fired artillery into the villages of Mansouri, Shamaa and Teir Harfan around the port city of Tyre. No casualties were reported.

Another strike at an area near the Syrian border, about six miles north of Hermel, targeted the Qaa-Homs road, one of four official crossing points between Lebanon and Syria. Two of the four border crossings are now closed because of damage, and repeated airstrikes have made the main Beirut-Damascus highway impassable.

Polls in Israel show wall-to-wall support for Israel’s fight against Hezbollah, even with Israeli civilians enduring a barrage of rocket fire and the army poised for a sweeping ground offensive that is sure to lead to more casualties.

But the deaths of 56 Lebanese in the devastating weekend strike in Qana focused attention on civilian casualties.

Three more civilians were killed and three seriously wounded when Israeli warplanes hit a house in the southern Lebanese town of Lweizeh, Lebanese security officials said Tuesday.

Also, the Lebanese Red Cross said the bodies of 12 civilians were retrieved from the rubble of buildings destroyed in airstrikes on four villages in southern Lebanon and many more were believed still buried. It was not clear when the victims were killed.

At least 532 Lebanese have been killed, including 461 civilians and 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah guerrillas. The health minister says the toll could be as high as 750, including those still buried in rubble or missing. Fifty-four Israelis have died – 36 soldiers as well as 18 civilians killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks.



AP correspondent Hamza Hendawi in Bourj al-Mulouk, Lebanon contributed to this report.



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