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Israel Blocks Lebanese Coast

Jets make hundreds of raids as the assault widens. Hezbollah fires rockets into Israel, farther than previously thought possible.

July 14, 2006|Laura King and Rania Abouzeid | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — Israel blockaded Lebanon's coastline, bombarded its international airport and this capital's southern suburbs and staged hundreds of air raids in a wide-ranging assault Thursday aimed at forcing the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah to free two captured Israeli soldiers.

A defiant Hezbollah retaliated by raining more than 100 Katyusha rockets on northern Israel, killing two people and injuring dozens. At least one rocket hit the large coastal city of Haifa, which previously was out of range of the projectiles, causing no injuries but raising alarm at the prospect of deadly strikes on major Israeli urban centers.

The militant group denied having fired on Haifa, a city of nearly 300,000 with a bustling port and a major oil refinery. Israel has said that such a strike could trigger retaliatory raids on Beirut, the Lebanese capital.

The rapidly intensifying conflict stoked fears of regional strife and drew calls for restraint from the international community. But neither side showed any sign of backing down; instead, each warned the other that further escalation was likely.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli general: An article in Friday's Section A said Dan Halutz, Israel's army chief of staff, was a brigadier general. He is a lieutenant general.

Though Israel's airstrikes have encompassed a wide range of targets, many of them seem chosen for their status as emblems of Hezbollah, such as TV installations, or staged to inflict highly visible damage that would be fairly easy to repair. The strikes on the airport, for example, did not target the new terminal or the control tower.

However, more than 50 Lebanese were reported killed in the strikes, which began before dawn and thundered long into the night. The nighttime attack on the airport, less than 14 hours after an early-morning missile barrage, sent flames from fuel tanks leaping skyward.

Early today, Lebanese security forces closed the main highway between Beirut and Damascus, the Syrian capital, after several Israeli airstrikes.

Lebanese television reported other strikes today in the southern suburbs where Hezbollah is headquartered. Targets reportedly included a bridge and an open area where the group held rallies.

The Lebanese government insisted that it had no advance knowledge of Hezbollah's cross-border raid Wednesday that led to the soldiers' capture and triggered the fighting. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack by the militant group, which in effect rules southern Lebanon.

Israel again asserted that the Lebanese government would pay a price for failing to rein in Hezbollah, which holds 14 parliamentary seats and heads two government ministries.

"Israel views Lebanon as responsible for the present situation, and it shall bear the consequences for this act," said Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry.

In northern Israel, people spent the night in fortified safe rooms and bomb shelters.

"We're not planning to leave this place. This is my home and my country," said Avi Elkayam, who lives on a kibbutz about six miles south of the Lebanese border. He, his wife and 2-year-old daughter spent the night in a safe room in their home.

Meanwhile, Israel's army chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz, asserting that "nothing is safe" in Lebanon, warned that Hezbollah-linked sites in Beirut, including homes and offices of the group's leaders, could be hit.

The Israeli air campaign was the heaviest against its northern neighbor since the mid-1980s. For many Lebanese, the strikes stirred painful memories.

Many were particularly shaken by the strikes on the airport, which was hit early Thursday by missiles that blew holes in three runways, then later by helicopter gunships that raked the runways with machine-gun fire.

"It reminds me of the dark days of war, seeing smoke rising over the airport," said Jihad Khalil Arar, who lives in the poor, predominantly Shiite suburb of Ouzai, near the airport.

People hurriedly stocked up on supplies in the capital and formed long lines at gas stations. Many stayed home from work.

The mood was even more tense in the Shiite-dominated south, Hezbollah's home turf, where shops were shuttered.

In the initial round of airstrikes, almost every bridge linking the south to the rest of the country was destroyed. Israeli jets roared overhead all day, and the distant thud of explosions could be heard.

With the airport and ports closed and the threat of more violence, tourists had limited options for leaving.

The remaining road out of Lebanon, a highway of hairpin turns that winds through the mountains toward Damascus, had been jammed with fleeing tourists. Then it too was closed.

Israel's ground incursion into Lebanon on Wednesday was the first of its kind since it pulled out of a self-declared buffer zone in May 2000. A top commander, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, said the offensive could widen.

Israel expressed fears Thursday that the captured soldiers could be taken to Iran, Hezbollah's chief patron. Both Israel and the United States have accused Iran of fomenting violence through its support of the group.

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