Israel tightens grip on Hizbullah stronghold

Separate airstrike kills seven civilians in Nabatiya.

The IDF kept up the offensive in Lebanon on Tuesday, with troops battling Hizbullah for control of a southern town. In a separate strike, IAF jets destroyed a house, killing seven civilians. For the first time since the offensive began July 12, the IDF put a limit on how far troops and tanks would advance in Lebanon. Col. Hemi Livni said Tuesday he knew of no plan "to go 70 kilometers into Lebanon." In Jerusalem, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said his government was determined to carry on fighting Hizbullah. "We will ... stop them. We will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians," Olmert told reporters before the start of his talks with Rice. There was no letup from Hizbullah either. The group's television channel Al-Manar broadcast Tuesday that its operatives were mounting a strong defense in the vicinity of Bint Jbail, a Hizbullah stronghold that Israel has been trying to capture since early Monday. "The resistance fighters are engaged in heroic confrontations with elite troops of the Golani Brigade, who are attempting to advance under heavy bombardment from the air and land," Al-Manar said. Rice, who is on the second leg of a Middle East tour, is pushing a plan that would produce both a cease-fire and the deployment of international and Lebanese troops in southern Lebanon to stop Hizbullah attacks on Israel. In Beirut on Monday, Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi'ite Muslim politician close to Hizbullah, rejected Rice's plan, arguing that the cease-fire should be imposed immediately and other issues could follow. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, whose government is backed by the US, took a similar stance and complained bitterly to Rice that Israeli air strikes were destroying the country. Israel "is taking Lebanon backward 50 years and the result will be Lebanon's destruction," Saniora told Rice, according to the prime minister's office. When she arrived in Israel, Rice defended the need to ensure that Hizbullah was dislodged from the south Lebanon border region before any cease-fire was declared. "Every peace has to be based on enduring principles," Rice said Monday. UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland has issued an urgent appeal for $150 million in aid to Lebanon. He also called on Israel to open the southern port of Tyre to allow ships to deliver supplies to the south of the country. "We are particularly worried about the population in south Lebanon and the (eastern) Bekaa Valley. It's there that they're in the crossfire and from where they're being displaced," Egeland said in Beirut before leaving the country Monday. US President George W. Bush ordered US Navy ships that have evacuated nearly 12,000 Americans from Lebanon to start delivering humanitarian aid to the country on Tuesday. "We are working with Israel and Lebanon to open up humanitarian corridors," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. Two ships docked at Beirut and convoys entered from Syria, bearing blankets, food, medicine - and two convoys of trucks took material to the worst hit areas in the south along dangerous and broken roads. So far Israel has loosened its blockade of Lebanese ports to let aid ships into Beirut, but has not defined any safe land routes for convoys to the south. Tens of thousands of refugees are in temporary shelters, supplies of medicine are tight at many hospitals and fuel is slowly running out under Israel's blockade of Lebanon's ports. Lebanese security officials reported three civilian deaths, without specifying where they occurred. Thirty strikes in and around towns and on roads were reported Monday by security officials and Lebanese media - down from 37 the day before. The numbers do not include strikes on Hizbullah positions that are not in populated areas. Israel reported 270 strikes on Sunday, suggesting that a large number were in more isolated regions. Still, Hizbullah was able to launch 80 rockets into northern Israel on Monday, wounding 13 people lightly, a rate only slightly lower than in past days. At the front Tuesday, an IDF official said the army had surrounded Bint Jbail, a town that has symbolic importance to Hizbullah as one of the centers of resistance to the Israeli occupation 1982-2000. Israeli forces have seized some houses on the outskirts of the hilltop town, but do not yet control Bint Jbail, the official said. Up to 200 Hizbullah guerrillas are believed to be defending the town, which lies about 4 kilometers north of the Israeli border. IAF jets demolished a house in Nabatiyeh, which lies 25 kilometers north of Bint Jbail. It was not immediately clear what the jet was targeting. Hospital and security officials said the attack killed seven civilians - the house's owner, Saad Hamza, his wife and two sons, and three other males. Hamza's daughter was seriously wounded in the raid and the wife of one of the male fatalities remained under the rubble, security officials said. It was not known if the woman under the debris was alive.