JERUSALEM Israel pounded southern Lebanon with airstrikes and artillery and sent ground troops over the border for the first time in six years today after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in an explosion of violence between the neighboring countries.
Hezbollah s brazen cross-border raid opened a second front for the Israeli army.
The army is now fighting Islamic militants in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, where it is looking for another soldier who was captured more than two weeks ago by Hamas-linked militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the Hezbollah raid an act of war by Lebanon and threatened very, very, very painful retaliation. The Cabinet, meeting in the wake of the military s highest daily death toll in four years, prepared to call up thousands of reservists.
Residents of northern Israeli towns were ordered to seek cover in underground bomb shelters as Hezbollah, an anti-Israel guerrilla group that essentially runs southern Lebanon, launched rockets across the border throughout the day.
Two Lebanese civilians and a Hezbollah fighter also were killed in the border violence. Still, jubilant Hezbollah supporters and Palestinians in Lebanon fired guns in the air and set off firecrackers at the news of the soldiers capture.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he would free the Israeli soldiers only in a prisoner swap, adding that he was open to a package deal that would include the release of the soldier held in Gaza.
The capture of the two soldiers could provide a solution to the Gaza crisis, he told reporters in Beirut.
That crisis began June 25 when Palestinian militants dug a tunnel out of the Gaza Strip and attacked an army position inside Israel, seizing Cpl. Gilad Shalit and demanding the release of 1,500 prisoners held by Israel.
Although Israel has made prisoner exchanges in the past, Olmert ruled out any negotiations for Shalit s return, saying that would only encourage more kidnappings.
Instead, Israel unleashed an offensive against Gaza, sending in troops, firing artillery and carrying out airstrikes on militant targets in an effort to force the Palestinians to free Shalit.
In an attempt to assassinate top Hamas fugitives today, Israel dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a home in Gaza City, killing a couple and seven of their children, ages 4-18. Hamas said its leaders escaped harm, but militants took over the intensive care unit of a hospital, barring reporters.
Palestinian security officials said Mohammed Deif, leader of Hamas military wing and No. 1 on Israel s wanted list for more than a decade, was among the wounded suffering severe back injuries that could paralyze him. At least 14 other Palestinians were killed in separate Israeli attacks today.
Palestinians in Gaza welcomed the attack in Lebanon, hoping it would force Israel to shift its focus away from them.
People are cheering this attack ... because they view it as a kind of revenge and reprisal against what Israel has been doing in Gaza, said Salah Bardawil, a spokesman for Hamas in the Palestinian parliament. Militarily, by opening a new front against Israel, it would ease the pressure on us. Israel is using a huge force in Gaza now. It will have to use part of its military capacity in Lebanon.
However, an Israeli military official said the army had no intention of moving any forces from the Gaza theater. The troops already on the northern border would deal with the conflict with Lebanon, backed by reinforcements if needed, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss troop movements.
Israel and Lebanon have a history of conflict, punctuated by a full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982, and its 18-year occupation of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon that was intended to prevent attacks on Israel. The United Nations certified that Israel s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon was complete, but Lebanon laid claim to a sliver of border territory, still held by Israel, that the U.N. said was actually part of Syria.
Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria and branded a terror group by the U.S. and Israel, used the dispute to justify cross-border attacks. But the fighting today was by far the worst since Israel withdrew six years ago, and it threatened to escalate.
This is a terrorist attack and it is clearly timed to exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said. We also hold Syria and Iran which directly support Hezbollah responsible for this attack and for the ensuing violence.
Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa denied his country had a role in either of the abductions and instead blamed Israel.
For sure, the occupation (of the Palestinian territories) is the cause provoking both the Lebanese and Palestinian people, and that s why there is Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for restraint. We would not want to see an expansion, an escalation, of conflict in the region, he said.
Hezbollah fighters began their attack today by firing a barrage of rockets at communities in northwestern Israel. The guerrillas then crossed the border and launched a surprise attack on two Israeli Humvees, killing three soldiers, wounding two and capturing the two others, the Israeli army said.
Israel quickly sent armored vehicles over the border on a rescue mission, but one of the tanks rolled over a large mine, killing the four soldiers inside and sparking a battle that killed another soldier, the army said.
It was the single highest number of Israeli military deaths on one day since the army s offensive in the West Bank town of Jenin on April 9, 2002, which left 14 soldiers dead.
Israel also sent warplanes deep into southern Lebanon targeting bridges, roads and Hezbollah positions. One blast hit a major junction along the main north-south coastal highway, wrecking the road and wounding two people. Two civilians were killed in the attacks, Lebanese officials said. Another airstrike targeted a
Palestinian guerrilla base south of Beirut, Lebanese security officials said.
Israeli artillery and gunboats fired into the area as well. The military said it attacked 40 targets to stop Hezbollah from moving the soldiers. Dozens of ground troops also entered southwestern Lebanon, witnesses said.
Israeli troops shot a Hezbollah guerrilla later today as he tried to cross the border, the Israeli army said.
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz warned that the assault would widen, Israeli TV reported. If the soldiers are not returned, he said, the military would target infrastructure and turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.
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