Israel attacks Lebanon after troops seized

By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer
July 13, 2006

Israel widened its offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas on Thursday, targeting Beirut's international airport and blasting southern Lebanon for a second day, police and airport officials said. Twenty-two civilians were reported killed in the south, local media said.

Warplanes struck the runways of the country's only international airport early Thursday during Israel's ongoing air and sea assault against Lebanon, which began a day earlier after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. The airport was later closed, forcing flights to be diverted to nearby Cyprus, officials said.

Israel's Army Radio said the object of Thursday's attack was to shut down air traffic in and out of Beirut. The airport is located in the capital's southern suburbs, which are controlled by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft and artillery continued attacking targets in southern Lebanon overnight, police reported. Leading TV station LBC said at least 22 civilians were killed in the attacks, including a family of 12 in the village of Dweir.

Israeli medics also reported Thursday that an Israeli woman was killed when a Hezbollah rocket hit her home in a northern border town. The Israeli military said it was checking the report.

Israel bombed and shelled southern Lebanon and sent ground troops over the border for the first time in six years Wednesday after the two soldiers were captured. The fighting killed eight Israeli soldiers and three Lebanese.

Hezbollah's brazen cross-border raid opened a second front for the Israeli army. The army is now fighting Islamic militants in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, where it is looking for another soldier who was captured more than two weeks ago by Hamas-linked militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the Hezbollah raid an "act of war" by Lebanon and threatened "very, very, very painful" retaliation. The Cabinet, meeting in the wake of the military's highest daily death toll in four years, decided to continue the army operation and call on the international community to disarm Hezbollah, according to participants.

Residents of northern Israeli towns were ordered to seek cover in underground bomb shelters as Hezbollah, an anti-Israel guerrilla group that essentially runs southern Lebanon, launched rockets across the border throughout the day.

Overnight, Hezbollah fired rockets and shells at Israeli military bases along the border, the military said. Also, an Israeli civilian was wounded by a rocket explosion in the border village of Zarit. His condition was not known.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he would free the Israeli soldiers only in a prisoner swap, adding that he was open to a package deal that would include the release of the soldier held in Gaza.

"The capture of the two soldiers could provide a solution to the Gaza crisis," he told reporters in Beirut.

At least 23 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Wednesday. And an Israeli airstrike early Thursday destroyed the building housing the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Foreign Ministry. Palestinian medics said 13 people in the neighborhood, including six children, were injured, mainly from flying glass and debris.

The Gaza crisis began June 25 when Palestinian militants dug a tunnel out of the coastal strip and attacked an army position inside Israel, seizing Cpl. Gilad Shalit and demanding the release of 1,500 prisoners held by Israel. Although Israel has made prisoner exchanges in the past, Olmert ruled out any negotiations for Shalit's return, saying that would only encourage more kidnappings.

Instead, Israel unleashed an offensive against Gaza, sending in troops, firing artillery and carrying out airstrikes on militant targets in an effort to force the Palestinians to free Shalit.

In an attempt to assassinate top Hamas fugitives Wednesday, Israel dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a home in Gaza City, killing a couple and seven of their children, ages 4-18. Hamas said its leaders escaped harm, but militants took over the intensive care unit of a hospital, barring reporters.

Palestinian security officials said Mohammed Deif, leader of Hamas' military wing and No. 1 on Israel's wanted list for more than a decade, was among the wounded — suffering severe back injuries that could paralyze him.

Palestinians in Gaza welcomed the attack in Lebanon, hoping it would force Israel to shift its focus away from them.

"People are cheering this attack ... because they view it as a kind of revenge and reprisal against what Israel has been doing in Gaza," said Salah Bardawil, a spokesman for Hamas in the Palestinian parliament. "Militarily, by opening a new front against Israel, it would ease the pressure on us. Israel is using a huge force in Gaza now. It will have to use part of its military capacity in Lebanon."

However, an Israeli military official said the army had no intention of moving any forces from the Gaza theater. The troops already on the northern border would deal with the conflict with Lebanon, backed by reinforcements if needed, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss troop movements.

Israel and Lebanon have a history of conflict, punctuated by a full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982, and its 18-year occupation of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon that was intended to prevent attacks on Israel. The United Nations certified that Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon was complete, but Lebanon laid claim to a sliver of border territory, still held by Israel, that the U.N. said was actually part of Syria.

Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria and branded a terror group by the U.S. and Israel, used the dispute to justify cross-border attacks. But the fighting Wednesday was by far the worst since Israel withdrew six years ago, and it threatened to escalate.

"This is a terrorist attack and it is clearly timed to exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence," U.S. National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said. "We also hold Syria and Iran — which directly support Hezbollah — responsible for this attack and for the ensuing violence."

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa denied his country had a role in either of the abductions and instead blamed Israel. "For sure, the occupation (of the Palestinian territories) is the cause provoking both the Lebanese and Palestinian people, and that's why there is Lebanese and Palestinian resistance," he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for restraint. "We would not want to see an expansion, an escalation, of conflict in the region," he said. He also condemned "without reservations the attack" by Hezbollah fighters.

Hezbollah fighters began their attack Wednesday by firing a barrage of rockets at communities in northwestern Israel. The guerrillas then crossed the border and launched a surprise attack on two Israeli Humvees, killing three soldiers, wounding two and capturing the two others, the Israeli army said.

Israel quickly sent armored vehicles over the border on a rescue mission, but one of the tanks rolled over a large mine, killing the four soldiers inside and sparking a battle that killed another soldier, the army said.

Israel also sent warplanes deep into southern Lebanon — targeting bridges, roads and Hezbollah positions. One blast hit a major junction along the main north-south coastal highway, wrecking the road and wounding two people. Two civilians were killed in the attacks, Lebanese officials said.

Another airstrike targeted a Palestinian guerrilla base south of Beirut, Lebanese security officials said.

Israeli artillery and gunboats fired into the area, as well. The military said it attacked 40 targets to stop Hezbollah from moving the soldiers. It did not say how many ground troops were involved, but witnesses said dozens entered southwestern Lebanon.

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