BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israeli warplanes struck Lebanon on Wednesday with thousands awaiting evacuation as the death toll mounted in a conflict that has entered its second week with no early end in sight.
Nine U.S. military ships were set to evacuated 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 six ships were in the region to start moving its citizens, with around 5,000 to be evacuated this week.
Other nations mustered boats and planes to reach 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 jets hit Shweifat, just south of the capital and the edge of its southern suburb. There was no immediate word on casualties, which have mounted as the conflict has dragged on and forced some 100,000 Lebanese to flee their homes.
Israeli forces also moved into the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and clashed with Palestinian militants there, according to Palestinian witnesses.
Civilians on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border were angry about the bombardment but Israel and Hizbollah showed no willingness to stop the fighting, which has killed 235 people in Lebanon and 25 Israelis, or heed proposals for a new U.N.-backed stabilisation force.
"I don't even know where our neighbourhood was," said one Lebanese Shi'ite, looking for where his home had been on the edge of a bomb-blasted Hizbollah compound in southern Beirut.
"They're still bombarding the area to grind it to dust. What kind of crime is this?" said the man, giving his name as Hassan.
Israelis, stunned by Hizbollah rocket attacks, said they wanted their army to smash the guerrilla group and most favoured killing its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a poll showed.
"We are killing those we need to kill," said Hanna Dehan, 60, speaking near the Israeli city of Haifa, where eight people were killed on Sunday when a Hizbollah rocket hit a train station.
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.
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 said there would be no negotiations with Hizbollah.
Lebanon's government, which wants an immediate ceasefire, said it had not received any clear proposals to end the assault.
World powers have said Hizbollah must first free the two soldiers and stop cross-border attacks. Israel also demands that Hizbollah disarm in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
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. Washington has queried how it could restrain the Islamist group.
"It is urgent that the international community acts to make a difference on the ground," Annan said in Brussels, suggesting a force that would operate differently from toothless U.N. peacekeepers who have patrolled south Lebanon since 1978.
Israel is also pursuing an offensive in the Gaza Strip after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier on June 25.
Israeli armoured forces clashed with Palestinian militants after entering the central Gaza Strip early on Wednesday, Palestinian witnesses said. At least 85 Palestinians have been killed in that offensive.
(Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki, Alaa Shahine and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Jerusalem bureau)
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