Body of fifth Egoz soldier recovered

IDF controls Maroun a-Ras; Peretz orders continuation of ground operations.

idf troops forest 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
idf troops forest 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
With thousands of IDF soldiers already carrying out pinpoint raids inside Lebanon, the army geared up over the weekend, officers said, for larger-scale incursions into southern Lebanon designed to destroy Hizbullah's ability to fire Katyusha rockets at northern Israel. Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the IDF Saturday night to continue its ground operations in southern Lebanon, with support from IAF attack helicopters and the Artillery Corps. Peretz instructed that the operations be limited in size. Defense officials said one reason for the planned escalation was US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit scheduled for Monday night. Although Israel was currently not under any diplomatic pressure, the official said, following Rice's visit the "diplomatic process" would switch into high gear and the "clock on the end of Israel's operation in Lebanon would begin ticking." On Saturday, the IDF took over the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras, the scene of heavy fighting over the past four days in which seven IDF personnel were killed, including four on Thursday from the Golani Brigade's elite Egoz unit. Two soldiers were killed on Wednesday. Infantry and armored forces operating behind the Lebanese border rescued the body of the fifth Egoz soldier killed in the battle in Maroun A-Ras last Thursday, the IDF revealed early Sunday. On Wednesday afternoon, it was released for publication that the fifth fatality was St.-Sgt. Yonatan Valesiuk, 21, from the southern town of Lahav. Valesiuk's body was found at the battle site on Friday, but could not be evacuated due to fierce gun battles. IDF troops guarded the body on Saturday until it could be removed in order to prevent its capture by Hizbullah. The fallen Egoz soldiers were identified on Friday as Maj. Benjy Hillman, 27, from Ra'anana, St.-Sgt. Rafenael Muscal, 21, from Mazkeret Batya, St.-Sgt. Nadav Baluah, 21, from Karmiel, and St.-Sgt. Liran Sa'adiya, 21, from Kiryat Shmona. On Thursday night, Maj. Ran Kochva was killed when two Apache attack helicopters collided south of Kiryat Shmona. Three other pilots were wounded in the accident. A large IDF force backed by artillery and tank fire deployed in the village, just north of Moshav Avivim, to prevent rocket attacks on Israel. At one point, a half-ton bomb was dropped on a Hizbullah outpost near the village, about 500 meters from the border. Other positions were bombarded by Israel Navy gunboats. On Saturday, more than 100 Hizbullah targets were hit by IAF and navy missile strikes, OC Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Beni Ganz said. More than 150 Katyushas landed in northern Israel, wounding dozens of people in Nahariya, Karmiel, Safed and Kiryat Shmona, he said. Ganz said that dozens of Hizbullah terrorists had been killed by IDF strikes during the day. Late Saturday, an IDF soldier was shot and moderately wounded by a Hizbullah sniper while on duty in an outpost along the border. The IDF distributed leaflets in 15 villages in southern Lebanon warning residents to evacuate their homes by Saturday evening and to move north of the Litani River. News agencies reported massive movement of Lebanese civilians from the Sidon region toward Beirut. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz told reporters Friday night that the fighting in Lebanon had cost Hizbullah a heavy price and that some 100 guerrillas had been killed in IDF strikes. Halutz said, "Our mission is to return security to Israel's citizens." To achieve that, he said, "The IDF will continue to strike at [Hizbullah]. Our soldiers and commanders have our full backing." Hinting at a large-scale ground incursion, Halutz said, "You cannot plant a flag in the ground with an F-16." According to the army chief, "Israel's past restraint has been interpreted by the terrorists as weakness. I think they have made a mistake. The IDF's recommendation [to the government] is to work to end this perception." On Friday, Israel knocked out a key bridge on the road leading from Lebanon to Syria and pummeled Hizbullah positions in the south of the country as long lines of tanks and armored personnel carriers lined up at the border and more than 5,000 reservists received emergency call-up orders. Among the targets were tunnels used by Hizbullah, antennas belonging to the organization's Nur radio station, rocket launch sites and access roads leading to those sites, including a road near the Syrian border. Lebanese media reported that one person was killed and five were wounded in an airstrike on the southern town of Nabatiyeh. The IDF was also reportedly operating near the Shaba Farms.