BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel struck Lebanon from the air and made limited attacks across the border on Wednesday, killing 41 civilians, as thousands awaited evacuation to flee a conflict that has entered its second week with no end in sight.
The Israeli army said its ground troops crossed into southern Lebanon to hit Hizbollah guerrilla outposts in "restricted" attacks while Israeli jets pounded the group's Beirut stronghold and the Shweifat area outside the capital.
At least 12 villagers, including several children, were killed and 30 wounded in an Israeli air strike that destroyed several houses in the southern village of Srifa, residents said.
"There was a massacre committed in Srifa," the village's mayor, Afif Najdi, told Al Arabiya television. "There are dozens dead and massive destruction. Emergency services are putting out fires, (but) they cannot reach the houses to recover bodies."
At least 29 other civilians were killed in air strikes on other parts of south and east Lebanon, security sources said. Hizbollah said one of its fighters was killed in the fighting.
The conflict has forced around 100,000 Lebanese to flee their homes and many foreigners to escape the country.
Nine U.S. warships were set to evacuate more than 2,400 U.S. citizens by air and sea on Wednesday, the first big group of up to 8,000 the Pentagon expects to bring out.
Britain said it had six ships in the region to start moving its citizens, with around 5,000 to be evacuated this week. A Royal Navy warship with 170 British evacuees on board arrived at Limassol in Cyprus on Wednesday.
Other nations mustered boats and planes to rescue citizens stranded by the bombing of Beirut's airport and dozens of roads and bridges in an Israeli campaign that began after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a border attack on July 12.
Israeli forces also clashed with Palestinian militants after pushing into the Gaza Strip early on Wednesday, killing four gunmen and two civilians, in a three-week-old offensive there to recover another soldier, seized by Palestinians on June 25.
Israeli soldiers shot dead three Palestinian gunmen in a raid on a security compound in the West Bank town of Nablus.
Civilians on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border were angry about the attacks but Israel and Hizbollah showed no desire to stop the fighting, which has killed 277 people in Lebanon and 25 Israelis.
U.S. President George W. Bush described Hizbollah as the root cause of the current conflict and said Syria, which supports the Shi'ite Muslim group, was trying to "get back into Lebanon" one year after ending its 29-year military presence.
Bush spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah about the crisis in Lebanon, with both expressing concern about the humanitarian situation and agreeing to assist those displaced or in need.
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations said the U.S. secretary of state would go to the region on Friday, but an aide to Condoleezza Rice said she would not go abroad on Friday and there was no final decision on any foreign travel.
While U.N. peace envoys held talks in Israel, the Israeli army was refusing to rule out a ground invasion, only six years after it ended a 22-year occupation of south Lebanon.
Israeli troops have crossed into southern Lebanon several times in recent days, returning soon afterwards.
Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Hizbollah had coordinated the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers with Iran, enabling Tehran to divert attention from its nuclear programme.
Olmert said there was no time limit to Israel's offensive and there would be no negotiations with Hizbollah.
World powers have said Hizbollah must first free the two soldiers and stop cross-border attacks. Israel also demands Hizbollah disarm in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
France proposed late on Tuesday that the U.N. Security Council consider a resolution calling for a lasting ceasefire in the Middle East, the release of captured Israeli soldiers and the disbanding of all militia in Lebanon.
Lebanon's government, which wants an immediate ceasefire, said it had not received any clear proposals to end the assault.
The Beirut government is too weak and divided to impose its authority on Hizbollah, which wants to swap the soldiers for Lebanese and Arabs in Israeli jails.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a bigger, more robust international force to stabilise southern Lebanon and buy time for the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbollah guerrillas.
Israel, bent on driving Hizbollah from the south, says it is too early to discuss such a force and Washington has queried how an international force could restrain the Islamist group.
(Reporting by Nadim Ladki, Alaa Shahine, Laila Bassam, Alistair Lyon and Dominic Evans in Beirut, Jerusalem bureau, Michele Kambas in Limassol, Yara Bayoumy in Dubai)
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