Israel launched its deepest ground attack into Lebanon with Israeli commandos raiding a Hezbollah-run hospital and air strikes killing at least seven civilians in the eastern city of Baalbek on Wednesday.
The Israeli military said that Israeli forces entered Baalbek, hit a number of guerrillas, captured several more and brought them back the Israel. The military said all its soldiers returned to their base without suffering casualties, but refused to identify the guerrillas who were captured.
Hezbollah's chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal initially dismissed as "untrue" reports that the Israeli commandos managed to snatch some patients from the hospital and spirit them away in helicopters.
Arab TV channels said Israeli forces had destroyed the Dar al-Hikma hospital in Baalbek, an ancient city, which was once a Syrian army headquarters some 130 kilometers north of Israel.
"A group of Israeli commandos was brought to the hospital by a helicopter. They entered the hospital." Rahal said, adding Hezbollah guerrillas fought the commandos inside the hospital.
Hezbollah was using automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and Israeli jets were attacking the surrounding guerrilla force with missiles, he said.
Israeli warplanes staged more than 10 bombings around the hospital as well as on hills east and north Baalbek, witnesses said. The planes also dropped flares over the city while heavy fighting was raging around the hospital, they added.
Jets later fired a second round of missiles on residential neighbourhoods in eastern and northern Baalbek where Hezbollah's Shiite supporters live, witnesses said.
Fighting ended at about 0630 IST as precarious calm prevailed in Baalbek, residents said.
Residents said the Dar al-Hikma hospital is financed by an Iranian charity, the Imam Khomeini Charitable Society, which is close to Hezbollah. The hospital is also run by people close to Hezbollah, the residents said.
The ferocity of the battles in Baalbek and across southern Lebanon, 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.
In the south, thousands of Israeli troops were operating all along the Israel-Lebanon border yesterday. Additional soldiers had crossed into Lebanon during the day, Israeli defence officials said, joining forces already fighting there for three days.
They entered through four different points along the border and progressed 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.
In announcing the expanded operation, 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, asking people to leave.