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Israel Strikes Lebanon After Militants Capture 2 Soldiers

Beirut airport is among the sites targeted in response to Hezbollah's cross-border raid, which the prime minister calls an act of war.

July 13, 2006|Laura King and Vita Bekker | Special to The Times

SAFAT, Israel — Israel bombed Beirut's airport early today and sent troops and tanks deep into Lebanon after guerrillas from the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a meticulously planned border raid.

It was Israel's first major offensive in Lebanon in six years, marking a return to a battlefield that for many Israelis became a quagmire.

A wave of overnight Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon killed more than 20 civilians, officials said, and an Israeli woman was killed when Lebanese guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets at the coastal town of Nahariya.

Israel confirmed that its air force had struck Beirut's airport to halt air traffic to and from the capital, saying that the airport was used as a hub to transfer weapons. It was unclear how long the airport would remain closed.

Israel's thrust across its northern border Wednesday left it waging simultaneous warfare on two fronts: in the Gaza Strip, where nearly 80 Palestinians have been killed during a 2-week-old offensive that also began after the seizure of an Israeli soldier, and in Lebanon, where troops spent two decades locked in a debilitating and inconclusive conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described Hezbollah's raid as an act of war, for which he said the Lebanese government bore responsibility.

The ramifications threatened to spread across the region. The White House and Israeli officials quickly cast blame on Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's patrons.

"These are difficult days for Israel and its citizens," a grim-faced Olmert told reporters. "There are elements, to the north and south, that are threatening our stability and seeking to test our determination. They will fail and pay a heavy price."

Israel is reeling from the capture of three soldiers in less than three weeks. A 19-year-old Israeli tank gunner, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, was seized by Hamas-linked Palestinian militants June 25 in a raid just outside the Gaza Strip.

At a triumphal news conference in south Beirut, Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Israel would have to agree to an exchange of prisoners if it wanted its soldiers back.

"What we say is that these hostages won't be returned to their homes except through one way: indirect negotiations and a swap," Nasrallah said. "Let the Israelis do whatever they want -- no military operation will result in the return of the soldiers."

The incursion into Lebanon coincided with heavy new fighting in Gaza. By day's end, at least 23 Palestinians had been killed there, the biggest one-day death toll of the offensive and the most lethal day of clashes in the coastal strip in nearly two years.

The confrontation in Lebanon, however, was read by nearly all as far graver in its scope and potential repercussions.

The White House called Hezbollah's action an "unprovoked act of terrorism" and condemned it "in the strongest terms."

In a statement issued as President Bush flew to Germany for a six-day visit there and in Russia, where he will take part in the annual Group of 8 conference, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the attack "was timed to exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence."

The administration called for the soldiers' "immediate and unconditional release."

In seizing the soldiers, Hezbollah staged what Israeli military officials acknowledged was a highly sophisticated, multi-pronged attack, a hallmark of the guerrilla group's operations during its long fight against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, which has since become a significant force in Lebanese politics, remains, in effect, the governing power in Lebanon's Shiite-dominated south.

Under cover of rocket and shell fire at northern Israeli hamlets and border army outposts, the guerrillas sprayed gunfire at two armored Israeli jeeps patrolling the frontier. It was at the site of that attack, which left three soldiers dead, that the two Israelis were captured, Israeli news reports said.

Israeli commanders, perhaps mindful that an army investigation of Shalit's capture had faulted troops at the scene for responding too slowly, ordered a hot pursuit into Lebanon.

Once across the border, however, Israeli forces fell into an ambush. A tank drove over powerful explosives laid in its path about three miles inside Lebanon, and four soldiers died in the blast. A fifth was killed trying to recover the stricken tank.

In the southern slums of Beirut, a Shiite stronghold, celebratory gunfire rang out after the capture of the soldiers was announced on Hezbollah's Al Manar television channel.

Israel has handed over prisoners to Hezbollah in exchange for soldiers or their remains. In 2004, the government of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon released more than 400 Arab prisoners, jailed for anti-Israel activities, to free a kidnapped Israeli businessman and obtain the remains of three soldiers.

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