Lebanon / UN 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
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The names of three of the four soldiers, killed in a harsh battle between IDF and Hizbullah on Thursday were released for publication on Friday.
Maj. Binyamin Hillman, 27, from Maccabim-Reut was to be buried at 12:30 p.m. on Friday in Ra'anana. First Sergeant Muskal Refanael, 21, from Mazkeret Batya was to be buried on Friday in his hometown at 2:30 p.m. The funeral for 21-year-old First Sergeant Nadav Baeloha was to be conducted at 2 p.m. in Karmiel where he lived. Meanwhile, First Sergeant Yotam Gilboa, 21, who was killed in the same place on Wednesday, was also to be buried on Friday at Kibbutz Maoz Haim.
Six soldiers were also wounded in the heavy exchange that took place near the Lebanese village of Maroun a-Ras, adjacent to Moshav Avivim.
Ground troops were sent across the border to the same sector as where two soldiers were killed the previous day, in order to engage Hizbullah guerillas that were firing mortar rounds towards Avivim.
Soldiers operating in Maroun a-Ras reported finding rocket launchers, explosives and other weapons in a mosque there.
IDF sources said 30-40 Hizbullah gunmen were killed during the combat.
Late Thursday, IAF pilot Maj. Ran Yehoshua Kochava, 37, was killed and three other pilots were injured - one critically, one moderately and one lightly - when two IAF Apache attack helicopters crashed near the Israel-Lebanon border.
Kochava's funeral was scheduled for 3 p.m. at Beit Hananya, where he lived.
The officers were set to carry out an operation over Lebanon and it appeared that the helicopters collided on the way, near Ramot Naftali, some 5 kilometers from the border. Witnesses said that one helicopter avoided crashing within the moshav, while the other tried unsuccessfully to execute an emergency landing, Army Radio reported.
IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy has ordered an investigation into the circumstances of the crash but IDF sources stressed that the collision was not a result of enemy fire from Lebanon.
The IAF has conducted over 3000 sorties over Lebanon since Operation Changing Direction commenced last Wednesday.
A high-ranking IDF officer said the difficulties troops encountered in the fighting on Thursday could prompt a larger-scale ground offensive into southern Lebanon.
OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said that the army needed weeks to meet its goal of significantly impairing Hizbullah's ability to launch attacks against Israel.
"We need several more weeks," Adam told The Post
in an exclusive interview. "We have more work ahead of us since it [Hizbullah] is still succeeding to fire rockets."
US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is expected to travel to Israel next week, generating speculation that Israel might have to wrap up its offensive around the time of her visit.
In a day filled with intense fighting two kilometers inside Lebanon, the IDF sustained heavy casualties just north of Avivim, the same place where two soldiers from the elite Maglan unit were killed on Wednesday.
Earlier Thursday, three soldiers were wounded, two seriously and one moderately after soldiers from an elite paratrooper's unit, operating near the community of Zar'it, engaged Hizbullah gunmen. A tank that followed the troops into Lebanon was hit by a missile and two soldiers were wounded.
The IDF said that at least three Hizbullah gunmen were killed in the clashes. Officers said the Egoz unit succeeded in hitting six Hizbullah terror cells, although it was unclear how gunmen many were killed.
Throughout the day, the IAF struck over 100 targets in Lebanon, including five rocket launchers and three Hizbullah training camps. Close to 50 Katyushas landed throughout northern Israel.
Hizbullah's Al-Manar television aired pictures of captured IDF equipment.
While Adam refused to estimate the exact damage caused to Hizbullah since the IDF launched Operation Change of Direction last Wednesday, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said Thursday that 50 percent of the group's capabilities had been destroyed.
Adam said that the military operation against Hizbullah would not, on its own, succeed in stopping the rocket fire. A diplomatic solution that included the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of Hizbullah and the deployment of Lebanese soldiers along the border was the only real solution, he said.
"There is nothing that can be solved just by the military," he said. "There is a need for a diplomatic solution and that is what we are doing - trying to create the optimal conditions for a diplomatic solution."
Asked if the IDF would launch a massive ground operation into Lebanon, Adam said that it was possible but that he envisioned an operation that combined forces from the land, air and sea. "I do not believe that anyone wants to go back into Lebanon," he said. "But there are people who think that we need to step up the offensive with a ground incursion."
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, touring northern cities and communities Thursday, emphasized that Israel had no intention of occupying Lebanon.
However, Peretz added that Israel would undertake any action in order to complete the mission and bring the situation in the north to victory.
"If we come to the conclusion that a ground operation is necessary, we will do it," Peretz said. "Terror groups should not get the feeling that we will recoil from any sort of action."
OC Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Beni Ganz said the IDF would continue to carry out precise pinpoint incursions against Hizbullah targets throughout southern Lebanon. He said that Hizbullah had built bunkers close to the border with Israel and that only ground forces were capable of discovering and destroying them.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said Thursday that an offensive in Lebanon would not end until Israel's security was restored, and vowed to destroy Hizbullah's arsenal and military capabilities.
"The fighting in the north... could last a long time," Halutz said in a letter sent to soldiers and officers. "We are being tested at this time. Our moral strength and value will reflect on the State of Israel and its residents and on their ability to continue to stand up to the threat on the front."
Late Thursday night, the IAF again struck targets in the Beirut neighborhood of Dahiya, a known Hizbullah stronghold. Late Wednesday night, IAF fighter jets bombed dropped 23 tons of explosives on a Hizbullah bunker, possibly the hiding place of the group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in southeast Beirut.
It was unclear who was in the bunker at the time and what their fate was, but IDF sources said the bunker was totally destroyed and that all that was left was a crater. The IDF said it obtained intelligence information late Wednesday night that Hizbullah leaders, possibly including Nasrallah, had taken refuge inside the bunker. A wave of aircraft immediately took to the air and dropped the explosives on the bunker.
IDF sources would not confirm that Nasrallah was in the bunker at the time, but said that high-ranking Hizbullah leaders were inside, and that it appeared that the attack was successful. Hizbullah said none of its "leaders or members" died in the IAF strike.
"The truth is that the building targeted by the enemy warplanes with 23 tons of explosives is just a building under construction to be a mosque for prayers," said the statement, issued on Al-Manar and faxed to The Associated Press. "It seems that the enemy wants to cover up its military and security failures with lies and claims of imaginary achievements."
Since the IDF went to war with Lebanon last Wednesday, fighter jets have repeatedly bombed another bunker in the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut, also said to be the main nerve center and headquarters of Hizbullah.
The IAF has so far carried over 3,000 sorties over Lebanon, and in the past day attacked 200 targets throughout the country, including Hizbullah headquarters, cars carrying terrorists, Katyusha launchers and weapons warehouses.