Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Israeli Forces Enter Lebanon After 2 Soldiers Are Seized

New York Times - The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a brazen raid this morning along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Israel immediately responded by sending an armored force into southern Lebanon for the first time since withdrawing six years ago.

A number of Israeli soldiers were killed and wounded in the fighting along the frontier, according to Israeli officials and media reports in Lebanon. Arab satellite news channels, including the Hezbollah-backed al Manar, reported that up to seven Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack.

However, the Israeli military did not provide any official figures.

The clashes dramatically escalated tensions at a time when Israel already is waging a military offensive in the Gaza Strip to seek the return of another soldier held by Palestinian militants for more than two weeks.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he held the Lebanese government responsible for the assault by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group that participates in Lebanese politics but also continues to battle Israel.

“I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason,” Mr. Olmert said. “The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region.”

The United Nations representative to southern Lebanon, Gier Pedersen, condemned Hezbollah’s capture of the Israeli soldiers and said it “escalates the already tense situation.”

The Lebanese government did not comment in the hours after the clashes began. Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon’s southern border despite international pressure and a United Nations resolution calling on the Lebanese government to take control of its borders and disarm militia groups.

The fighting erupted when Hezbollah attacked northern Israel with rocket fire this morning, injuring several Israeli civilians in the northwestern town of Shlomi, the Israeli military said. Israel responded with artillery fire and air strikes that targeted Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon. Later, Israeli troops moved into southern Lebanon in the first such incursion since Israel pulled its troops back into Israel in 2000.

The Israeli strikes knocked out bridges in southern Lebanon in an apparent attempt to keep Hezbollah from moving the captured Israeli soldiers further to the north. Also, at least two Lebanese civilians were killed, according to Reuters.

The Israeli military did not immediately provide details on the border clashes.

While cross-border shooting exchanges break out with some frequency, it has been exceedingly rare for Hezbollah and the Israeli military to come face-to-face on the ground over the past six years.

But Hezbollah said its fighters seized two soldiers along the volatile and heavily guarded frontier. “The two captives were transferred to a safe place,” the group said in a statement.

It said the kidnappings had been planned for months and were intended to help free Hezbollah fighters held in Israeli jails in a prisoner exchange.

Residents in Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated southern suburbs handed out sweets and set off firecrackers in celebration.