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Fierce Israel-Hezbollah Fighting Grips Border

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on vacation. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

The Israeli military is keeping up heavy air and artillery strikes into Lebanon, aimed at Hezbollah guerillas. Israeli ground forces are engaged in heavy, tougher-than-expected ground fighting in the south, and there's been little letup in the number of rockets Hezbollah fires into cities and towns across northern Israel.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has more from the Israel-Lebanon border.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Israel's Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, calls the Army's ground attack into south Lebanon a series of limited entrances. There was tough fighting yesterday and again today just north and west of the Israeli town of Avivim, near the Lebanese villages of Maroun al-Ras and Aidelshaw(ph). Apache attack helicopters circled overhead, 36 hours after the Israeli Army said it largely controlled Maroun al-Ras. You could hear the thud of machine gun fire and see the plumes of smoke from artillery fire pounding the rocky hills.

(Soundbite of artillery fire)

WESTERVELT: The Army says nine Israeli soldiers were wounded today in fighting just north of Maroun al-Ras.

Soldiers doing the fighting report well-organized guerilla units using sophisticated tunnel systems, entrenched fighting posts and high-tech anti-tank rockets. This 19-year-old tank driver, who didn't want to give his name, is fresh out of tank school and says he now has to maneuver his fighting vehicle around booby traps and improvised explosives.

Unidentified Man (Israeli Defense Forces): Like mines. But I know I'm with experienced people, and I'm not scared at all.

WESTERVELT: Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Oliviae Rapovich(ph) insists these incursions are limited and not the start of a wider ground push.

Lieutenant Colonel OLIVIAE RAPOVICH (Israeli Defense Forces): If we just deal with Hezbollah targets into Lebanon, then when the mission is over, we get back to Israel. We have no intention to be in Lebanon. We have no interest to be in Lebanon.

WESTERVELT: The administrator of Avivim, Shimon Biton, sits in the center of the village, now largely deserted of residents and filled with military vehicles and soldiers. Biton says he knows ground attacks into Lebanon could be long, hard and costly.

Mr. SHIMON BITON (Director, Avivim Residents Committee, Avivim, Lebanon): (Through translator) I hope we don't have to go into every town and clean it out. But, unfortunately, I think we'll have to do a major cleansing. We have to do it. Hezbollah has had six years to prepare for what's falling on Haifa.

WESTERVELT: As Israel pushes harder into south Lebanon, Hezbollah guerillas continue steady Katyusha rocket fire into Israel, prompting the now ubiquitous take-cover warning sirens to ring all day in cities and towns across the north.

(Soundbite of warning sirens)

WESTERVELT: Hezbollah fired more than 90 rockets yesterday, the Army says, including another barrage into Haifa, Israel's third largest city. Two people were killed, including a man who was driving in downtown Haifa when the rocket landed nearby, riddling his car with large ball bearings Hezbollah is packing into the artillery for extra shrapnel. The small town of Qornet Shehwan(ph) was hit again. Some 20 rockets landed here yesterday, lightly wounding several people and sparking more fires. Fields across the northern Galilee are now on fire or sit smoldering and blackened.

As a thick haze of smoke and ash covers his town, Qornet Shehwan resident Guy Faglesom(ph) says despite relentless Israeli attacks from air, artillery and some ground power, Hezbollah has maintained steady rocket fire.

Mr. GUY FAGLESOM: It looks like we can't beat them just like this. They are very strong. They armed themselves very good. Hezbollah had six years since we left the place to organize. Everyday they show us what they can do. No matter what we do from inside there, no matter what we do from the air, they keep on shooting like nothing happened.

WESTERVELT: The Army says it struck 21 rocket launchers in Lebanon overnight, but the rocket fire from Hezbollah continues. Some Israeli government leaders have started to lower expectations of the military action. A week ago, Israeli officials talked of destroying and demolishing Hezbollah. Now, there's talk of crippling the guerilla group and setting the conditions for a diplomatic solution that ensures security.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, near Avivim, on the Israel-Lebanon border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.