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Heavy Fighting in Southern Lebanon as Israeli Troops Approach Town


Heavy fighting is taking place in southern Lebanon as Israeli forces approach the town of Bint Jbail in their offensive against Hezbollah militants.

Bint Jbail, known to be a Hezbollah stronghold, is north of Marun al-Ras, a Lebanese hilltop village that Israeli forces seized last week.

Israeli armored vehicles crossed into Lebanon Monday morning at dawn, headed toward Bint Jbail. Heavy exchanges of fire were reported between the soldiers and Hezbollah fighters.

An Israeli army helicopter also crashed today in northern Israel, several kilometers south of the border with Lebanon. There are reports of casualties, but it is not known if anyone was killed.

Israel's military says at least 10 soldiers have been wounded in today's clashes, but has not confirmed any deaths. There is no word on Hezbollah casualties.

In overnight fighting, Israeli officials say they captured two Hezbollah guerrillas in the area - believed to be the first Hezbollah members taken prisoner in the conflict.

A spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry says talk of a cease-fire is premature because it will mean that Hezbollah can start firing again anytime it pleases.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz says the ground operation in Lebanon is a necessity for any cease-fire to succeed. He says Israel supports the eventual deployment of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon, possibly led by NATO.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says Israel's advance into Lebanon will not stop his guerrillas from firing more rockets into northern Israel.

The Hezbollah leader is based in Beirut, but his headquarters compound has been hit by multiple air strikes and his current whereabouts are not known. His comments appeared Monday in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir.

Israel's offensive in Lebanon against Hezbollah began after guerrillas crossed the border nearly two weeks ago July 12 and captured two Israeli soldiers, triggering a battle that killed eight other Israelis.

Since then, the violence has claimed the lives of more than 350 Lebanese and 37 Israelis. Another 500 Lebanese and 200 Israelis have been wounded.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.

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