Second front in Mideast conflict


JERUSALEM -- Israel sent tanks, troops and aircraft into southern Lebanon yesterday after Hezbollah fighters crossed into Israel and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, opening a second front in the battles between Israel and Islamic militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the raid by Hezbollah "an act of war" and held Lebanon's government responsible.

Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting yesterday on the Lebanese border, the Israeli army said. Three of the soldiers died during the initial Hezbollah attack with anti-tank missiles against two Israeli vehicles patrolling the border. Four other soldiers were killed when their tank hit a mine after crossing into Lebanon, and an eighth died after attempting to rescue the tank crew.

The kidnapped soldiers had been riding in the Israeli patrol vehicles.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in Beirut that a prisoner exchange was the only way to secure the release of the two soldiers.

"No military operation will return them," he said. "The prisoners will not be returned except through one way: indirect negotiations and a trade."

Olmert flatly rejected negotiations, as he has in the case of an Israeli army corporal abducted three weeks ago near Gaza.

"We have made it clear throughout that we will not give in to extortion and that we will not negotiate with terrorists regarding the lives of Israeli soldiers," Olmert said.

Thousands of Israeli forces are already engaged in a military campaign in Gaza, trying to free the corporal kidnapped last month by Hamas and other militant groups.

Twenty-three Palestinians were killed yesterday in Gaza, including seven members of one family who died after an Israeli airstrike flattened their home, according to Palestinian officials and Israeli news media reports. Israeli army officials said the house was being used by Hamas to plot future attacks against Israel.

Among those killed were Dr. Nabil al-Salmiah, a senior Hamas official, his wife and their five children. The bombing wounded Mohammed Deif, a Hamas leader who was on Israel's most-wanted list, Palestinian security officials said. Deif has been held responsible for suicide bombings in Israel.

Yesterday morning, earthmovers clawed through the rubble looking for bodies in the remains of the two-story house. The explosion shattered windows and knocked huge holes in the walls of neighboring buildings.

In the north, Israeli artillery and warplanes struck Hezbollah positions deep inside Lebanon, blasting five bridges along with Hezbollah posts, bases and vehicles, Israeli officials said.

Wire services quoted Lebanese officials saying that two Lebanese civilians and a Hezbollah fighter were killed.

Israeli troops crossed into Lebanon near the area where the soldiers had been abducted, in pursuit of the soldiers' captors, marking the first time that Israeli forces have entered Lebanon in six years, after a long occupation of the southernmost tier of the country.

Israel ordered civilians living near the Lebanese border into underground bomb shelters for protection from Hezbollah rocket attacks.

"The army has been reacting in air, sea and land and preparing for a powerful reaction later on. We have broad and encompassing plans," Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the officer in charge of Israel's northern command, said at a news conference yesterday.

Adam said the army wants to "push Hezbollah away from the borders," although the targets may not be limited to southern Lebanon. "Everything is legitimate," he said

Hezbollah, the "Party of God," originally a militant Shiite group dependent on support from Iran and Syria, has become one of Lebanon's major political parties. Its members, representing the country's predominantly Shiite south, hold seats in parliament and two Cabinet ministries.

The United States and Israel consider it a terrorist group, and it has battled Israel since the group's emergence in the mid-1980s.

"Israel views the sovereign Lebanese government as responsible for the action that originated on its soil and for the return of the abducted soldiers to Israel," the Israeli Cabinet said in a statement last night. "However, there is no doubt that Hezbollah, a terrorist organization operating inside Lebanon, initiated and perpetrated today's action; Israel will act against it in a manner required by its actions."

White House press secretary Tony Snow, in a statement issued as Air Force One flew to Germany, said: "We also hold Syria and Iran, which have provided long-standing support for Hezbollah, responsible for today's violence. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of the Israeli soldiers."

Syria blamed Israel for the violence in Lebanon and Gaza and denied that it had had a role in the soldiers' abduction.

Hezbollah's raid is evidence of an alliance with Hamas, according to Moshe Marzuk, a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya.

"Hezbollah is trying to help Hamas," he said.

But it has also placed the Lebanese government in a bind. Divided along Sunni, Shiite and Christian lines, the government would find it difficult to criticize the raid, yet it doesn't want to suffer the consequences of a major Israeli military offensive, Marzuk said.

"They cannot go to say this is not [the] right thing, because all the Muslims support this kidnapping, because Nasrallah" - the Hezbollah leader - "is fighting for something that everyone supports, the release of Palestinian prisoners," Marzuk said.

Hezbollah and Israel have in the past exchanged prisoners. In 2004, Hezbollah swapped an Israeli businessman and the remains of three Israeli soldiers for 436 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel and the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters. Israel continues to hold three Lebanese prisoners, whose release is among Hezbollah's demands.

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