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Conflict in Southern Lebanon Continues Unabated

The conflict in southern Lebanon continues as Israeli forces battle Hezbollah guerillas. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what Israel is trying to achieve and discusses Hezbollah's military capabilities.

The current conflict began about two weeks ago (July 12th) when guerillas belonging to the militant group Hezbollah crossed from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. They killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others.

Hezbollah is a militant Shiite group controlling much of southern Lebanon. Its goal is the destruction of Israel. The U.S. and Israeli governments consider it a terrorist group. But at the same time, it is a political and social entity. It holds seats in the Lebanese parliament, Cabinet positions in the Lebanese government and provides broad social services.

In response to Hezbollah's attack on its soldiers, Israel launched a massive air campaign, hitting suspected Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon - and by crossing the border to fight Hezbollah guerillas on the ground. Hezbollah retaliated by launching rockets into northern Israel. Fighting continues on all fronts and military experts say there is no end in sight.

Paul Rogers is a military expert at the University of Bradford, in England (north of Manchester). He says the Israeli military campaign has three goals.

"One is to try and damage the Hezbollah facilities actually in southern Lebanon - and that has been particularly intensive," Rogers says. "The second purpose is to try and pick out the longer-range Hezbollah facilities, both in terms of their main areas in southern Beirut and particularly some of the suspected longer-range missile launchers - and there are reports that the Israelis have hit some of those. The third point of the campaign is really to disrupt any kind of logistic support for Hezbollah in the coming weeks and months - and that has involved the destruction of bridges, fuel systems and the rest for quite large parts of Lebanon as a whole with very, very big side effects against Lebanese civilians."

Rogers says Israel is fighting a well disciplined and determined force of about five thousand Hezbollah paramilitaries, backed by 20,000 to 30,000 auxiliaries - many of whom are former paramilitaries who fought Israel in the mid 1980s. Rogers says Hezbollah is also equipped with more than 12,000 Katyusha rockets - short-range unguided missiles which the militant group has been launching into northern Israel on a consistent basis since the conflict began two weeks ago.

Stephen Trimble with the publication Jane's Defense Weekly, says Hezbollah may have other missiles in its arsenal.

"They haven't fired yet some of the more long-range missiles which they are believed to actually possess," Trimble says. "One is the 'Zelzal' rocket - it is a family of rockets that has a range from 120 to 400 kilometers - and an Iranian rocket called the 'Fajr' - it is also a family of rockets that has a range of somewhere between 40 to 70 kilometers, depending on the rocket that is used."

Trimble says Hezbollah also has unmanned aerial vehicles that could be modified with a warhead and used in attacks on Israel.

Paul Rogers from Bradford University says the two-week conflict has already provided some unpleasant surprises for the Israelis.

"The biggest surprise of all was the attack on the Israeli missile corvette on the second day of the war, using quite an advanced sea-skimming missile fired from land," Rogers says. "The boat that was hit was one of the 'Saar-five class' corvettes, among the most modern and well armed of any missile boat in the world, with defensive systems very much designed to protect it from just such a missile. It is not at all clear that the Israeli Defense Force even knew that Hezbollah had such missiles. The ship itself was badly crippled and may be out of action for a year."

Experts say Israeli forces inside southern Lebanon are also encountering far more resistance than was expected from Hezbollah guerillas. The Israeli conduct of the war has prompted a commentator (Yoel Marcus) in the newspaper Haaretz to write: "Two weeks after Israel set out to defeat Hezbollah, its military achievements are pretty limited."

Paul Rogers agrees.

"So the reality is as of now, two weeks into an intensive air war, Hezbollah is able to fire missiles as it was on day one," Rogers says. "So I think there is a genuine recognition that degrading Hezbollah's capability by air simply will not work - and the civilian casualties will be very high. So that does mean that major ground intervention will follow, at a much larger scale than is currently being done."

The Israeli government has decided not to expand its offensive in southern Lebanon. Officials say they just want to clear Hezbollah from the border area and create a security zone.

Experts say if the Israeli goal is to destroy Hezbollah's fighting ability, that may take some time and may not be a permanent answer. They say a lasting, political solution to the Lebanese crisis must be found in order to prevent future wars and avoid a repeat of the current destruction and loss of life.