- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

TEL AVIV — In a buckling of a U.N.-brokered Middle East cease-fire, a team of Israeli commandos yesterday carried out a raid deep inside Lebanon aimed at sabotaging weapons shipments from reaching the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia.

One Israeli commando was killed and another was wounded seriously in the gunbattle with Hezbollah guerrillas in the Bekaa Valley stronghold of the militia group, close to the Syrian border. Hezbollah also reportedly suffered casualties in the fighting.

Lebanon threatened to halt deployment of its soldiers in the south of the country, and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora denounced Israel’s operation as a “flagrant violation” of the cease-fire.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan discussed the operation by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and later called it a “violation by the Israeli side of the cessation of hostilities as laid out in Security Council Resolution 1701.”

U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said in Beirut that reports on the Israeli strike indicated it constituted a violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution that established a truce early last week after more than a month of fighting.

Israel said the raid did not violate the cease-fire, and Washington appeared to agree with that claim.

An Israeli army spokesman said the goal of the operation was achieved in full, and that the military would continue to prevent Hezbollah from getting weapons shipments from Iran and Syria.

The operation exposed the first major dispute over implementation of Resolution 1701, which helped end fighting in Lebanon earlier last week.

Concerned that the cease-fire will enable Hezbollah to rearm, Israel is demanding that the Lebanese army and international peacekeepers enforce the arms embargo against the militia called for by the cease-fire resolution.

Israeli security officials said the commandos flew in by helicopter to a hill outside the village of Boudai west of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, about 17 miles from the Syrian border. Witnesses said Israeli missiles destroyed a bridge during the fighting.

Officials told the Associated Press the Israelis apparently were seeking a guerrilla target in a nearby school. Lebanese media speculated that Sheik Mohammed Yazbeck, a senior Hezbollah official in the Bekaa Valley and a member of the group’s executive council, may have been the target.

The area in the eastern Bekaa Valley, 60 miles north of the Israeli border, is a major guerrilla stronghold. Baalbek is the birthplace of Hezbollah.

Footage of the aftermath of the battle showed army documents and bloodstains left behind by the Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on reports that the commando unit captured two Hezbollah operatives. The commandos reportedly had finished their mission and were on their way back to the helicopters when they encountered Hezbollah gunmen.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the commando raid was a response to an infraction of the cease-fire, which calls for a weapons embargo against Hezbollah.

“Israel will not tolerate Hezbollah exploiting the cease-fire to rearm, and to re-equip with strategic weapons from Iran and Syria. Then we’re back to square one,” Mr. Regev said.

“The international community is very quick to speak out on Lebanon and to pass resolutions, but what we need is concrete steps. We could see 1701 go the way of other resolutions on Lebanon, which promised much, but in the end failed to deliver,” he said.

Mr. Olmert told Mr. Annan the raid was “intended to prevent the resupply of new weapons and ammunition for Hezbollah,” the AP reported, quoting unidentified officials.

In Washington, the White House declined to criticize the raid, noting that Israel said it acted in reaction to arms smuggling into Lebanon and that the U.N. resolution calls for the prevention of resupplying Hezbollah with weapons.

“The incident underscores the importance of quickly deploying” an international force in Lebanon, the AP quoted White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo as saying.

The multinational force charged with overseeing the cease-fire is coming together more slowly than expected, and in the meantime, Israel said it will enforce the embargo by itself. That could further destabilize the weeklong calm.

Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr, who met with Mr. Roed-Larsen, warned that if the U.N. Security Council doesn’t address the purported Israeli violations of the agreement, he will freeze the deployment of thousands of Lebanese soldiers in the south of the country.

But the threat did not stop Lebanese soldiers from reaching bases in the south for the first time in decades.

Yesterday, an advance force of 49 French peacekeepers arrived in southern Lebanon. About 200 more are expected this week. The new force will provide reinforcements for the 2,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission known as UNIFIL, which has been stationed in the region for years.

They were the first additions to what is intended to grow into a 15,000-soldier U.N. force to police the truce with an equal number of Lebanese troops. France leads UNIFIL — the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon — and already had 200 soldiers in Lebanon before the reinforcements.

Mr. Roed-Larsen said the Lebanese army has deployed more than 1,500 soldiers in three sectors of the south where Israeli forces have left, and the 2,000 peacekeepers of UNIFIL have set up checkpoints and started patrolling the areas.

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