| A Lebanese woman raises her hands in the air in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Friday. (AP)
Beirut, July 21 (Reuters): Thousands of Lebanese civilians fled north today after Israel warned them to leave border villages and called up 3,000 army reserves in a possible prelude to a ground offensive against Hizbollah guerrillas.
Families with possessions packed into cars and pickup trucks clogged roads to the north after Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning residents of south Lebanon to flee for safety beyond the Litani river, about 20 km from the frontier.
An estimated 300,000 mostly Shia Lebanese normally reside south of the Litani. There was no word on how many have already fled the bombing and fighting of the past few days. Air raids have wrecked many roads and bridges in the region. An Israeli military source said the army had told 3,000 reserves to report for duty. The call-up came a day after defence minister Amir Peretz spoke of a possible land offensive.
Elite Israeli troops have been launching small-scale raids in Lebanon to try to stop Hizbollah rocket attacks. But Israel has been wary of launching a full-scale invasion, only six years after it ended a costly 22-year occupation of the south.
It first invaded Lebanon in 1978, pushing up to the Litani to try to drive Palestinian guerrillas from the border.
Lebanonís defence minister said the army, which has not fought so far despite losing a score of soldiers in Israeli air strikes, would defend the country against invasion.
According to the YNET News website (www.ynetnews.com) today, Israel could have three to four army divisions massed on the border with Lebanon by the end of the weekend as signs grow the military is preparing for a ground invasion. The army said it could not confirm or deny the report. An army division normally comprises about 5,000 soldiers and around 100 tanks and many other armoured vehicles.
Israeli forces have killed nearly 100 Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon during a 10-day offensive, the Jewish stateís military chief said today.
Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz did not say how the army had arrived at the number.