Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Israeli forces enter Lebanon

Israel launches offensive inside Lebanon
7 Israeli troops die in fighting; soldier kidnappings called an ‘act of war’
MSNBC News Services

Updated: 9:18 a.m. PT July 12, 2006

MARJAYOUN, Lebanon - The Israeli army on Wednesday said seven soldiers were killed in fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas after a cross-border raid in which the Lebanese group captured two other soldiers and dozens of Israeli troops crossed the frontier with warplanes, tanks and gunboats to hunt for the captives.

Israel’s Channel 10 reported Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz authorized a campaign of air strikes targeting Hezbollah guerrilla installations and Lebanese civilian infrastructure — a second front in the fight against Islamic militants by Israel, which already is waging an operation to free a captured soldier in the Gaza Strip.

The report described the planned blitz as part of Israel’s response to the capture of two of its soldiers and killing of several others in a Hezbollah border raid earlier in the day.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the soldiers’ capture “an act of war.”

Striking deep

Israeli jets struck deep into southern Lebanon, blasting bridges and Hezbollah positions and killing two civilians, Lebanese security officials said.

The Israeli military planned to call up thousands of reservists, and residents of Israeli towns on the border with Lebanon were ordered to seek cover in underground bomb shelters.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said the Lebanese government was responsible for the two soldiers’ safety.

The United States, U.N., European Union, France and Germany expressed deep concern about the fighting. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the immediate release of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and condemned Israel’s retaliation in southern Lebanon.

Arab League concerns

The Arab League planned an urgent meeting on the crisis Thursday amid “fears of widening of tension and possible Israeli strike against Syria,” which backs Hezbollah, a senior league official in Cairo said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa blamed Israel for the escalating violence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and denied his country had a role in either abduction.

“It’s up to the resistance — both the Lebanese and the Palestinian — to decide what they are doing and why are they fighting,” he told reporters in Damascus.

The top U.N. official in Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, met with Lebanon’s prime minister and denounced Hezbollah’s incursion across the border into northern Israel, known as the Blue Line.

“Hezbollah’s action escalates the already tense situation along the Blue Line and is an act of very dangerous proportions,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, on a visit to Cairo, Egypt, said the soldiers’ capture was “a very dangerous escalation.”

He accused Syria of interfering to prevent a solution to abduction of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Gaza militants.

“We are dismayed that so far there are some who are intending to interfere,” he said.

Jubilation in south Beirut

Meantime, jubilant residents of south Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah, and Palestinians in the Ein el-Hilwa refugee camp fired in the air and set off firecrackers for more than an hour after the capture of the Israeli soldiers was announced.

Hezbollah also called for major "celebration rallies" to be held in Lebanon on Thursday and had started to organize them, NBC News' Richard Engel reported. In the past, similar celebrations have attracted tens of thousands, or even several hundred thousand people.

Hezbollah sources also said the “Palestinians are very happy,” clearly showing Hezbollah’s solidarity with Hamas.

Hezbollah supporters were seen setting off fire crackers and distributing sweets in the streets of Beirut. Similar scenes were reported across Lebanon.

Turning back the clock

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz warned the Lebanese government that the Israeli military will target infrastructure and “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years,” if the soldiers are not returned, Israeli TV reported.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and withdrew after high casualties on both sides.

A top Hamas leader said his movement did not coordinate with Hezbollah on the capture of the soldiers, but said it was “natural” for the two groups to work together in their demands against Israel.

“Now Israeli has to decide on its choices,” Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ spokesman in Lebanon, told The Associated Press. “It is early to talk about details of the exchange, but no doubt the operation carried out by Hezbollah today will strengthen our demands to exchange the captives.”

Fates of 9,000 prisoners at stake

Hamas-linked militants have demanded the release of at least some of the estimated 9,000 prisoners held by Israel in exchange for Shalit’s freedom. Hamdan’s comments suggested the group now may toughen its stance.

Shalit, 19, was captured June 25 by Hamas-linked militants on a cross-border raid into Israel from Gaza.

The Israeli offensive in Gaza since Shalit’s capture has killed more 60 Palestinians, most gunmen but about a dozen civilians. One Israeli soldier has died in that operation, shot by fellow troops.

NBC News’ Richard Engel, The Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report.

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