Israeli attack described as a `tie-breaker'


Beirut, Lebanon -- Witnesses said the Dar Al Hikma hospital in Baalbek was empty but for guards and Hezbollah fighters, when the Israeli Apache helicopters struck at 10:15 p.m. Tuesday.

What followed was a withering close-quarters fight between the guerrillas and Israeli commandos in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, 60 miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. It marked the deepest penetration by Israeli forces into Lebanon in the 22-day war.

The choreographed way the several dozen helicopters and fighters coursed up and down the Bekaa Valley suggested more than one agenda, witnesses said. Among them: a strike against a cache of more-lethal Hezbollah weapons, a mission to capture Hezbollah leaders, or simply a demonstration of Israel's ability to strike swiftly, decisively and at will.

The result - at least five captured Hezbollah guerrillas and no Israeli casualties - was hailed in Israel yesterday as a clear boost for the country's forces after weeks of cloudier outcomes and outright setbacks.

But Hezbollah leader Mohammed Yazbek, a rumored target of the operation, spoke by telephone to the guerrilla organization's television station yesterday to prove he was not captured, the Associated Press reported. Early in the attack, the group had said its fighters had trapped the elite Israeli fighters in the hospital.

Approaching in darkness, commandos were dropped off by helicopters and covered by fire from the aircraft, according to the Israeli military.

The commandos split, one group heading into a neighborhood near the hospital, the other entering the building, killing four armed guards at the entrance, according to Col. Nitzan Alon, commander of the operation.

"Our forces took control of the entrances of the hospital," said Col. Nitzan Alon, commander of the operation code-named "Sharp and Smooth" in Hebrew.

In the hospital, which also allegedly housed Hezbollah offices, the commandos moved from room to room, clearing the way with stun grenades.

"Then, while our forces were taking control of the building, [Hezbollah] reinforcement continued to arrive and were hit by ground and air forces," said Alon.

Inside the four-story building, Alon said in a Tel Aviv media briefing, troops fanned out from the basement to the top floors. Outside, they came under fire from nearby houses.

The Israeli military said they came out six hours later without a single casualty.

Israel said it captured five fighters and killed 19 others in the strike on the outskirts of the city famous for its Roman ruins. Lebanese authorities reported six captured, 11 killed.

Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and security expert, said that in addition to the hunt for high-ranking Hezbollah leaders, Israel might also have been searching for larger, more-lethal weapons stored in the rear guard.

Israeli military analysts speculated that the raid also could have been a rescue attempt for the captured Israeli soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

Either way, Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai called the results a "tie-breaker."

"Even if the objectives weren't achieved in full, the raid in Baalbek undermines the myth of ground supremacy nurtured by Hezbollah," Ben-Yishai wrote on the newspaper Yediot Ahronot's YNET Web site. "It doesn't matter whether the units succeeded in reaching 100 percent of their goals - when the IDF succeeds in penetrating the organization's most important military and civilian stronghold at a time it is on highest alert, this is a grave blow to morale."

In preparation for the landing by commando forces, helicopter-fired rockets and heavy machine-gun bursts raked the area near the hospital. Power cuts plunged Baalbek and surrounding villages into darkness. Flares lighted the night sky, and smoke billowed from the hospital building.

Residents said the swooping helicopters came in four waves.

Israeli officials said warplanes also made at least 10 bombing runs, striking the Baalbek neighborhoods thought to be home to Hezbollah figures.

"Forces were dropped off by helicopters, and their task was to locate and hit terrorists approaching the area," Alon said.

Alon said a neighboring house was discovered to be a weapons storage site and targeted for an air strike.

A Baalbek journalist said the Israelis also attacked a Bedouin tent on a nearby potato farm in Jamaliyyeh, killing seven people, including a women and her five children, ages 3 to 16.

The Israeli military showed journalists a film that included aerial footage of helicopters approaching the drop zone in darkness, and of a group of Hezbollah fighters moving toward the Israeli forces and being fired upon from the air. Also shown were scenes of an Israeli soldier moving through the hospital, searching a cabinet and lifting what appeared to be an automatic rifle out of a drawer.

The fighting ended about 4 a.m., and all the soldiers returned safely to base, the army said.

Israeli media reports identified three of the captured men as Hussein Nasrallah - not believed to be related to the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah - Hussein Burji and Ahmed Ghotah. They were described as low-ranking members of the group.

Israeli military officials declined to comment on reports that the target of the raid was Mohammed Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah figure who was believed to be in the hospital.

Asked whether any of the captured men were "big fish," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Associated Press: "They are tasty fishes." Olmert also said in the AP interview that the hospital in question was "no hospital - this is a base of the Hezbollah in disguise."

Rone Tempest, in Beirut, and Laura King, in Jerusalem, write for the Los Angeles Times.

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