JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s army suffered heavy casualties in a battle with Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon on Wednesday and Al Jazeera Television said at least nine soldiers had been killed.
Al Arabiya Television said 12 were killed during fierce clashes in the town of Bint Jbeil, a key militia stronghold 4 km (2.5 miles) in Lebanon. The stations gave no further details.
Such a toll would be the heaviest for Israel’s army since it launched an offensive against Hizbollah more than two weeks ago.
Israeli media said up to 13 soldiers had been wounded. An army spokesman said he could only confirm several soldiers were wounded.
Israeli forces have been battling for days to take over Bint Jbeil, since seizing a village closer to the border last week.
Hizbollah earlier said in a statement in Beirut that fierce clashes were raging around Bint Jbeil. It said guerrillas had confronted Israeli forces trying to advance toward the town from a nearby hill.
The army estimates it has killed up to 30 guerrillas in the battle for the Bint Jbeil stronghold, home to 4,000 people.
Until the latest fighting, nine Israeli troops had been killed in the ground offensive inside southern Lebanon.
Taking Bint Jbeil would be a morale-booster for Israel, which launched its Lebanese offensive after Hizbollah killed eight soldiers and abducted two others in a July 12 border raid. Â
Senior officers have described it as the main Hizbollah outpost in southern Lebanon.
Clearing Bint Jbeil could also be part of Israel’s plan to establish a no-go zone for the guerrillas in southern Lebanon until an international force arrives to take over.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said on Tuesday Israel would control a “security strip” along the 80 km (50 mile) frontier and fire at anyone who entered.
He did not say how wide it would be. Israeli government sources estimated the zone’s width at 3-4 km (1.9-2.5 miles).
According to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hizbollah fighters are holed up in a network of tunnels and trenches around Shi’ite Muslim villages in southern Lebanon. Israel ordered civilians out of 14 of the villages over the weekend.