Saturday, August 19, 2006

Israeli raid in Lebanon tests truce

Israeli raid in Lebanon tests truce
Sat Aug 19, 2006 11:49 AM ET

By Nadim Ladki

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Helicopter-borne Israeli commandos raided a Hizbollah bastion on Saturday in what Lebanon called a "naked violation" of the U.N.-backed truce that halted Israel's 34-day war with the Shi'ite Muslim group.

Israel said the operation in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley aimed to disrupt weapons supplies to Hizbollah from Syria and Iran. Both countries deny arming the group.

Lebanon's defense minister urged the United Nations to give "clear answers" in response to the raid and warned that if it failed to do so, he might seek to halt the deployment of Lebanese troops to the south of the country.

Lebanese security sources said three Hizbollah guerrillas were killed in a firefight with the Israelis, although Hizbollah said none of its fighters were killed or hurt.

Israel said it had suffered one dead and two wounded.

"It is a naked violation of the cessation of hostilities declared by the Security Council," Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told reporters, referring to an August 11 resolution. He said he had protested to visiting U.N. envoys.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon UNIFIL said it could not comment on the incident because its 2,000-force was based in the south of the country rather than the Bekaa Valley.

However, Lebanese Defense Minister Elias al-Murr said that was not good enough.

"If I don't receive clear answers today at 5:30 pm (1430 GMT) from the United Nations, I may have to ask the cabinet at the beginning of next week to halt the army deployment in the south," he told reporters before meeting the visiting envoys.

The Lebanese security sources said Israeli helicopters unloaded two vehicles carrying commandos who headed toward an office of a Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, in the village of Bodai. They were intercepted and withdrew under cover of air strikes, they said.

Israel's army said: "Special forces carried out an operation to disrupt terror actions against Israel with an emphasis on the transfer of munitions from Syria and Iran to Hizbollah."

Bodai is 15 km (9 miles) northwest of the ancient city of Baalbek and 26 km (16 miles) from the Syrian border.

The raid coincided with a Lebanese army drive to tighten its grip on the border with Syria. Thousands of troops deployed to block smuggling routes on Saturday, security sources said.

Nevertheless, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said continued Hizbollah arms shipments and the absence of Lebanese and international troops on the border had made the raid necessary.

"Israel reserves the right to act in order to enforce the spirit of the (U.N.) resolution," said spokesman Mark Regev. Other Israeli government officials described it as "a defensive operation" which did not breach the ceasefire.

Resolution 1701 ordered Israel to end "all offensive military actions" and Hizbollah to end all attacks. It also called for an embargo on unauthorized arms supplies to Lebanon.


At least 1,183 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the war. Israel said it had killed more than 530 Hizbollah fighters -- at least five times more than the group has acknowledged. Hizbollah buried 54 guerrillas across Lebanon on Saturday, the largest total on a single day.

The U.N. resolution also called for a strengthened U.N. force to support a Lebanese army deployment in the south.

Fifty French military engineers disembarked at UNIFIL's base in Naqoura in the south, the first reinforcements since the war.

The engineers were among 200 pledged by France, which has disappointed U.N. and U.S. hopes that it would form the backbone of the expanded force to supervise the truce, support the Lebanese army and monitor the withdrawal of Israeli troops.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Bush said the U.N. force would help the Beirut government restore sovereignty and "stop Hizbollah from acting as a state within a state."

The United Nations wants to field an advance force of 3,500 troops by September 2 and the entire complement of 13,000 extra troops by November 4, as authorized by the U.N. resolution.

The Lebanese army began deploying in the south on Thursday. Hizbollah fighters have lain low, without relinquishing their weapons, including the rockets they rained on Israel in the war.

The conflict began after Hizbollah snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, saying it wanted to trade them for Lebanese and Arab prisoners held in Israel.

The Jewish state is also trying to free another soldier captured in the Gaza Strip on June 25.

Israel seized Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Naser al-Shaer, a top official of the Hamas militant group, at his home in the occupied West Bank on Saturday.

Hours later, a Palestinian gunman killed an Israeli soldier near the West Bank city of Nablus and was then shot dead by troops, the army and medics said.

(Additional reporting by Jerusalem, Paris and U.N. bureaux)

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