They said they were battling an intelligent, well-prepared and ruthless guerrilla army whose fighters didn't seem to fear death.

"It's hard to beat them," one soldier said. "They're not afraid of anything."

The soldiers described exchanges of gunfire in between houses and on village streets with Hezbollah fighters sometimes popping out of bushes to fire Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenades (RPG) and anti-tank missiles.

The troops' comments underscored the enormous challenges faced by Israel as it seeks to neutralise Hezbollah, which captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, prompting massive air and ground reprisals.

Grief for Israel

Despite Israel's enormous firepower that has already killed at least 380 Lebanese, some military analysts say the war is not going particularly well for Israel.

The Jewish state, they say, has been unable to significantly push back the guerrillas or stop hundreds of their rockets from slamming into northern Israel and causing casualties.

"They're not normal soldiers, you know. They're guerrillas.They're very smart"

Michael Sidorenko, an Israeli soldier fighting in south Lebanon

For the past few days, Israel has been fighting for control of the tiny southern Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras, located on a hilltop less than 500 metres across the border.

The army said it had taken the village, but gunfire and the blasts of artillery shells could still be heard on Sunday as tanks and helicopters pounded positions inside.

'Very smart'

Officers at the scene confirmed there was still fighting to do.

"They're not fighting like we thought they would," one soldier said. "They're fighting harder. They're good on their own ground."

One soldier said the guerrillas wore olive green army uniforms "to confuse us" because Israelis wear the same.

Others said Hezbollah hid underground in reinforced bunkers until they thought it safe to come out and attack.

The Israeli troops prefer to stay away from those bunkers, the soldiers said, instead calling in coordinates so forces massed behind the border can hit them with guided missiles.

"It will take the summer to beat them," said Michael Sidorenko, 21, resting in the shade of a road sign with other combat troops. On the hills behind him, loud gunfire and the constant thud of explosions could be heard.

Hezbollah has fired hundreds of
rockets at northern Israel

"They're not normal soldiers, you know," Sidorenko said. "They're guerrillas. They're very smart."

Sidorenko said he saw Hezbollah fighters firing from behind Lebanese civilians.

"That's why our soldiers are getting killed," he said.

Of the 19 soldiers killed so far since fighting began, five have died trying to gain control of Maroun al-Ras.

To avoid more deaths among its troops, Israel has decided to limit its ground incursions to pinpoint operations near the border.

Tactical shortcomings

But military analysts say this tactic may well be insufficient to achieve Israel's goal of pushing Hezbollah back and destroying its ability to attack Israel.

Not every soldier described Hezbollah as fierce. One said that when Israeli troops show up in vehicles, the guerrillas "run like chickens."

Others wondered why Hezbollah had not yet attacked the nearly two-dozen army vehicles and hundreds of troops camped out in easy striking range below the hill on which Maroun al-Ras sits.

Most believed the guerrillas would rather keep aiming their rockets at major Israeli population centres such as Haifa. Eighteen civilians have died in such attacks on northern Israel.

"They're not fighting like we thought they would. They're fighting harder. They're good on their own ground"

An Israeli soldier

The soldiers said Hezbollah had refrained from attacking them as they approached Maroun al-Ras in tanks and armoured personnel carriers, preferring instead to let troops reach the village and attack them there.

The fighting, they said, showed the guerrillas had used the six years since Israel withdrew from Lebanon to build bunkers, stockpile weapons and study tactics.

"They have good knowledge about where we are, what we're doing, what kinds of weapons we have," Sidorenko said.

"But it's better to fight them now than later, when they'd be even stronger."