Ground assault readied

ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER – Israel massed tanks and troops on the border Friday, hours after calling up reserves, as the army announced plans for a ground operation to destroy Hezbollah’s tunnels, hideouts and weapons stashes.

With Hezbollah’s rocket attacks and Israeli bombings undiminished, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she would visit the Middle East beginning Sunday, her first trip to the region since the crisis erupted 10 days ago. But she ruled out a quick cease-fire between Israel and the Shiite guerrillas as a “false promise.”

Israel was poised to carry out its third large-scale ground operation in Lebanon since 1978. This time, however, the Israelis signaled they did not want to stay long.

Israel hopes the operation will end in the neutralization of Hezbollah. But the operation carries great risks for the country and the region. If Lebanon’s weak central government is undermined, it could again immerse the country in disorder and ignite fresh passions in many Arab countries against Israel and the United States.

On Friday, the Israeli army confirmed that small units have been operating in Lebanon for days. An official from the U.N. monitoring force in south Lebanon said 300 to 500 Israeli troops were believed to be in the western sector of the border, backed by as many as 30 tanks.

Israel wants to weaken Hezbollah with a limited ground operation to make it easier for the Lebanese army to move into areas previously controlled by the guerrillas, said a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the topic’s military sensitivity.

On Friday, Israel knocked out a key bridge on the road to Syria and pummeled Hezbollah positions in the south as long lines of tanks and armored personnel carriers lined up at the border.

A barrage of 11 Hezbollah rockets rained down on Israel’s third-largest city, the northern port of Haifa, wounding at least five people, two seriously. France, the United Nations and Red Cross demanded that Israel open humanitarian corridors to allow shelter, food, water and medicine to reach an estimated half-million displaced people.

At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said he expected a humanitarian corridor for food, medicine and other supplies to be opened later Friday or today.

The Lebanese health ministry has reported 362 deaths in Lebanon so far in the onslaught, an increase of 55 since it released figures on Thursday. Thirty-four Israelis also have been killed.

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