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Ground Combat Remains Heavy in South Lebanon

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Israel says it will put off plans for a broader offensive, one that would take its forces deep into south Lebanon, at least for now. Still, the fighting goes on. Today Israeli ground troops seized several small Lebanese towns and there are reports of fierce exchanges with Hezbollah guerillas.

At the same time, the U.N.'s World Food Program is saying the Israeli authorities are refusing to give it permission to deliver aid to the tens of thousands of citizens still inside south Lebanon.

We're joined from Beirut by NPR's Philip Reeves. Hello.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Hello. Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And what have you learned about what's going on in these towns that would appear to need aid?

REEVES: Well, Israeli ground troops supported by tanks have taken over three towns on the border: Marjayoun, Qlaiah, and Busheer Malook(ph). Now, these are Christian towns, close to one another. And we've been getting reports today of fighting. Some of this has been clearly intense. One resident reportedly says that he's seen Hezbollah guerillas firing volleys of rockets and mortars at the Israeli forces.

The intention from the Israeli perspective appears to be to try to get at Hezbollah rocket firing positions. And rockets have indeed today been flying into northern Israel yet again.

MONTAGNE: Does this mean Israel's larger offensive against south Lebanon has in fact begun, or is this, if you would, business as usual?

REEVES: Well, Israeli government officials are being quoted saying that the expanded ground offenses, which the - offensive, which the cabinet agreed yesterday - which would, by the way, take Israeli forces 18 miles potentially into Lebanon, up to the Litani River and could last more than a month - they're saying that that's on hold until the weekend. This is to allow Israel to see if there's any possibility the diplomatic process will get off the ground.

MONTAGNE: Lebanon has offered to send its army down to the border with Israel. The question is, is it capable of taking control of the south? Hezbollah has said it would welcome the Lebanese forces, but does that mean it will be able to get them out?

REEVES: Well, it's an absolutely critical issue. In a televised speech last night, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made it clear that Hezbollah does support that the plan, that offer from Lebanon, and would cooperate it. He also, of course, a couple of his remarks and assorted threats to turn south Lebanon into a graveyard for Israeli soldiers if they stay in the area and so on and so forth.

But there is a serious question about whether the Lebanese army would be capable of keeping Hezbollah out. There are questions about its competency, its lacking combat experience and equipment. And Israeli officials are clearly skeptical of the offer for that reason and for other reasons, and they're not convinced that Lebanon's army would actually take concrete action to stop future Hezbollah attacks. So that's a core issue in this debate right now.

MONTAGNE: And finally, what are you hearing, Philip, about the humanitarian situation?

REEVES: Well, today the U.N. World Food Program was telling me that there is at present what an official described as a blanket ban on carrying aid to much of the south because the armed forces in Israel, those armed forces are not giving U.N. convoys clearance to go to much of south Lebanon.

Officials say they're enormously concerned about this. They don't exactly know what the plight is, though, of the civilians in the villages of south Lebanon because they can't get in. And in fact, U.N. official this morning described what he perceived to be a lack of cooperation on the issue as a violation of international law.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much, NPR's Philip Reeves speaking to us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning Edition
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.