Jul 13 10:35 AM US/Eastern
By SAM F. GHATTAS
Associated Press Writer
Israel intensified its attacks Thursday against Lebanon, blasting Beirut's airport and a Lebanese army air base near the Syrian border, and imposing a naval blockade. More than 50 people have died in violence following the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants.
Warplanes punched holes in the runways of Beirut's international airport and Lebanon's main military air base 30 miles to the east, an attack that could draw the Lebanese army into the conflict.
Israel's army chief Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz warned that "nothing is safe" in Lebanon and said Beirut itself _ particularly Hezbollah offices and residences _ would be a target.
Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israeli towns and said it was using a new missile that appeared to be more advanced than previous models. One Israeli was killed and at least 12 were injured.
The militant group also said it would rocket the key Israeli port city of Haifa if Israel hit Beirut, a strike that would be the deepest ever into Israel by the guerrillas _ some 18 miles.
Two days of Israeli bombings, the heaviest air campaign against its neighbor in 24 years, had killed 47 Lebanese and wounded 103, Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalife said. Besides the Israeli civilian, eight Israeli soldiers had also been killed.
Both sides played a high stakes game following the capture of the two soldiers by Hezbollah: Israel sought to end Hezbollah's presence on the border, while the guerrillas insisted on trading the captured soldiers for Arab prisoners.
Trapped between the two sides was Lebanon, which Israel said it held responsible for Hezbollah's actions. The Lebanese government insisted it had no prior knowledge of the Hezbollah raid and did not condone it.
Hezbollah fighters operate with almost total autonomy in southern Lebanon, and the government has no control over their actions. But Lebanon has long resisted international pressure to disarm the group.
The Israeli warnings of more attacks caused panic in Beirut, and many people stayed home from work. Long lines formed at gas stations and supermarkets were packed.
The violence reverberated throughout the region and pushed crude oil prices to a new intraday record of $76.30 a barrel.
Western countries, Russia and the United Nations called for restraint and demanded the return of the soldiers. The Arab League called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday. The European Union criticized Israel for using what it called "disproportionate" force in its attacks and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was planning a peace mission to the Middle East.
President Bush pledged to work with Israel, criticizing Hezbollah for thwarting efforts for peace in the Middle East.
"My attitude is this: there are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace," he said at a news conference in Germany. "The soldiers need to be returned."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel's Lebanon offensive "is raising our fears of a new regional war" and urged world powers to intervene.
Middle East satellite TV stations focused on the violence, and one station showed a man holding the head and torso of a baby killed in the Israeli bombings.
The eight Israeli soldiers killed so far is the highest death toll for the army in four years. Three soldiers died in the initial Hezbollah raid, and four were killed when their tank ran over a land mine Wednesday.
In northern Israel, thousands of civilians spent Wednesday night in underground shelters as Hezbollah fired rockets at northern Israel. A 40-year-old Israeli woman was killed and five people were wounded in the rocket attacks, the Israeli army reported.
After hitting roads and bridges in the south all day Wednesday, Israel dramatically expanded its campaign Thursday with their biggest offensive in Lebanon since Israel's 1982 invasion.
Israeli warships imposed a naval blockade of Lebanese ports, and the Israeli military said it could also target the Beirut-to-Damascus highway, the main land link between Lebanon and the outside world.
Jets dropped two bombs on the runway at the Rayak air base in the eastern Bekaa Valley, damaging it, police said. No casualties were reported.
Rayak, four miles west of the Syrian border, is home to the country's main military air base and is military headquarters in eastern Lebanon. Lebanon's army has no operational fixed-wing military aircraft and only operates helicopters equipped with machine guns.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said his forces would not allow Hezbollah guerrillas to occupy positions along the southern Lebanese border.
"If the government of Lebanon fails to deploy its forces, as is expected of a sovereign government, we shall not allow Hezbollah forces to remain any further on the borders of the state of Israel," Peretz said.
Air force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said the campaign was likely Israel's largest ever in Lebanon "if you measure it in number of targets hit in one night, the complexity of the strikes." The last major offensive against Lebanon was in 1996 when about 150 Lebanese civilians were killed.
Travelers to and from Beirut were stranded all over the region and beyond after the airport strike. Among them was Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, who was returning from a visit to Armenia and _ like many _ was forced to make his way home through Syria.
Israeli warplanes blasted craters into all three runways at the airport, located by the seaside in the Lebanese capital's Hezbollah- controlled southern suburbs, forcing incoming flights to divert to Cyprus. The main terminal of the $500 million airport remained intact.
The Israeli military said it struck the airport because it is "a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to the Hezbollah terrorist organization."
It was the first time since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and occupation of Beirut that the airport was hit by Israel. The Israelis in 1968 sent commandos to Beirut airport, blowing up 13 passenger planes in retaliation for Arab militants firing on an Israeli airliner in Athens.
Details from the violence included:
_ An Israeli missile hit Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV studios in southern Beirut, station official Ibrahim Farhat said. One person was hurt; broadcasts continued. An Al-Manar transmission antenna hit near Baalbek stopped transmissions in that area.
_ A civic center attached to a Shiite Muslim mosque near the town of Baalbek was hit.
_ A Lebanese family of 10 and another family of seven were killed in their homes in the village of Dweir, Lebanese officials said.
_ Among the dead Lebanese were a soldier and a Hezbollah fighter.
_ Hezbollah fired rockets at the northern Israeli towns of Safed, Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona, and Carmiel, saying it was using a rocket called "Thunder 1" for the first time. The missiles appeared to be more advanced than the inaccurate Katyusha _ the standard Hezbollah rocket.
The Israeli army said several rockets had landed more than 12 miles south of the border, showing that Hezbollah has managed to extend its missiles' range.
Associated Press reporter Karin Laub in Jerusalem contributed to this report.