Israel, Hezbollah escalate attacks

Israeli warplanes bombard Lebanon, targeting militants

July 14, 2006|By LAURA KING AND RANIA ABOUZEID | LAURA KING AND RANIA ABOUZEID,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israel blockaded Lebanon's coastline, bombarded its international airport and staged hundreds of air raids in a wide-ranging assault yesterday 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 of others. At least one rocket hit the large coastal city of Haifa, previously out of the projectiles' range, causing no injuries but raising alarm at the prospect of deadly strikes on major Israeli urban centers.

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

Israeli warplanes stepped up the pressure early today. The Israeli army said strikes in and around Beirut targeted a fuel tank, two bridges, a highway linking Beirut to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the southern suburbs where Hezbollah has its political headquarters. Lebanese police said three people were killed and dozens wounded.

The raid came a few hours after Israeli planes dropped leaflets in south Beirut warning residents to avoid areas where Hezbollah operates.

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 escalations were likely.

While the Israeli strikes thus far have encompassed a range of targets, many seemed selected for their status as emblems of Hezbollah - such as TV installations - or were staged in such a way as to inflict damage that was dramatically visible yet lent itself fairly readily to repair. The strikes on Beirut's airport, for example, did not target the new terminal or the control tower

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

The Lebanese government insisted that it had no prior knowledge of the cross-border raid by Hezbollah that resulted in the soldiers' capture and triggered the fighting. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the strike by the militant group, a Syrian ally that effectively rules south Lebanon.

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

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

Israel expressed fears yesterday that the captured soldiers could be spirited away to Iran, which is Hezbollah's chief patron. Both Israel and the United States have accused Iran of fomenting violence through its support for the militant group.

Hours after the initial strike on the international airport, Israeli aircraft bombed runways at two Lebanese air bases, one in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border and another in northern Lebanon.

Also hit in yesterday's raids were the south Beirut studios of Hezbollah's Al-Manar television. But the station, which had triumphantly announced the capture of the soldiers a day before, was able to continue transmitting. Two smaller regional Al-Manar facilities were struck as well.

One of the highest civilian casualty counts came in the south Lebanon village of Dweir, where a family of 10 and another family of seven were killed, according to official accounts.

Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz, Israel's army chief of staff, warned that "nothing is safe" in Lebanon and said Beirut - particularly Hezbollah offices and residences - would be a target.

Adam said Israel had hit hundreds of targets and hadn't ruled out sending in ground troops.

The Israeli army said Hezbollah fired more than 100 rockets into northern Israeli towns, killing a man in Safad and a woman in Nahariya, and wounding more than 35 civilians. Hezbollah said it was using a new missile that appeared to be more advanced than previous models.

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.

President Bush defended Israel's actions but expressed concern that they could topple Lebanon's government, as the violence exposed divisions between the United States and its allies.

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