Israeli commandos strain cease-fire


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israeli commandos dropped deep into Lebanon yesterday, clashing with Hezbollah fighters in a raid that left one Israeli soldier dead and put the first serious strain on the cease-fire that started six days ago.

Israel and Lebanon swiftly accused each other of breaking the U.N. Security Council resolution that established the conditions for ending more than a month of cross-border bombing and rocket attacks that left hundreds of people dead.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called the raid a "naked violation" of the resolution and said he would complain to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who issued a statement later yesterday saying that he was "deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side of the cessation of hostilities."

The Israeli military said its special forces were trying to disrupt Hezbollah arms supply routes from Syria, contending that the Lebanese army was failing to prevent Hezbollah from replenishing its weapons stockpiles.

"There was an attempt to bring in weaponry from Syria to Lebanon," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "The resolution calls for there to be Lebanese soldiers and international force there on the border crossings to prevent this from happening.

"Unfortunately, they're not there at the moment. In the interim period, we can't have a situation where Hezbollah is smuggling weapons and is rearming and regrouping."

But Israel produced no evidence of intercepted weapons. And the depth of the Israeli raid - 60 miles inside Lebanon - led to widespread speculation that the commandos may have been on a mission to rescue two kidnapped Israeli soldiers from Hezbollah's hands.

The kidnapping last month was the spark for ferocious fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

Yesterday's firefight occurred in fields outside Bouday, a town just west of the historic city of Baalbek and an area deeply loyal to Hezbollah.

Lebanese news media quoted witnesses who said the Israelis landed in helicopters in a cornfield and then began traveling along back roads in two military vehicles.

But they were spotted by local Hezbollah guerrillas, who engaged them in a firefight that local media said lasted two hours.

The Israeli military acknowledged that one of its officers was killed in the exchanges and two others were wounded, one seriously.

The military said that Israeli jets had to provide cover in order to extricate the soldiers and that at one point the planes dropped bombs to knock out a bridge to prevent more Hezbollah fighters from joining the battle.

Hezbollah officials said none of its fighters were killed or wounded.

"They dropped here, and we sent them away," said spokesman Hussein Nablousi, who said the militant Shiite Muslim organization had not been surprised by the raid. "The world should not be so naive. Israel violates all agreements, all U.N. resolutions, all understandings."

The cease-fire agreement calls on Hezbollah to stop its attacks and Israel to halt "all offensive military operations." It also requires the Lebanese government to secure its borders to prevent any unauthorized weapons entering the country.

That task has fallen to what is supposed to eventually be a force of 15,000 Lebanese soldiers. They are also supposed to be backed by a force of U.N. peacekeepers, but the United Nations is having trouble finding countries willing to put soldiers into the volatile region.

The Lebanese military began deploying its soldiers into towns south of the Litani River on Thursday.

Their presence remains light in a region where the United Nations says 400,000 people have returned to shattered homes and villages littered with an estimated 13,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance.

But the army is gradually extending its reach. Yesterday, Lebanese soldiers were seen driving jeeps through border towns such as Kfar Kila where Israeli subdivisions and tanks were within sight.

Still, the Israeli army said it would continue cross-border raids until "proper monitoring bodies are established on the Lebanese borders."

It gave few details of yesterday's operation, although Foreign Ministry spokesman Regev said the goals of the operation were "achieved in full."

In addition to the speculation that the raid may have been a rescue operation, others contended that Israel might have been trying to seize a high-ranking Hezbollah guerrilla or cleric to be used in a prisoner swap.

They pointed out that Bouday is the hometown of Sheik Mohammed Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah official in the Bekaa Valley.

"They were trying a kidnapping," said Hussein Haj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament from Baalbek. "People are very angry and upset."

At least one independent analyst expressed skepticism of Israel's claim that the raid was intended to intercept arms supplies.

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