- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

12:20 p.m.

BEIRUT — Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid today, and dozens of Israeli troops crossed the frontier with warplanes, tanks and gunboats to hunt for the captives.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the soldiers’ capture “an act of war,” and his Cabinet prepared to approve more military action in Lebanon — a second front in the fight against Islamic militants by Israel, which already is waging an operation to free a captured soldier in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli jets struck deep into southern Lebanon, blasting bridges and Hezbollah positions and killing two civilians, Lebanese security officials said.

The Israeli military planned to call up thousands of reservists, and residents of Israeli towns on the border with Lebanon were ordered to seek cover in underground bomb shelters.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said the Lebanese government was responsible for the two soldiers’ safety.

At least six Israeli soldiers were killed in the Hezbollah attack and Israeli response, the Lebanese officials said. The Israeli army confirmed casualties among its troops.

The United States, the United Nations, the European Union, France and Germany expressed deep concern about the fighting. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the immediate release of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and condemned Israel’s retaliation in southern Lebanon.

Israel dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a home in the Gaza Strip before dawn to try to assassinate top Hamas fugitives, escalating its two-week offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at freeing a soldier seized by fighters linked to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The blast killed nine members of a Palestinian family, including a 4-year-old boy. The head of Hamas’ military wing was wounded but escaped, Israel said.

The Arab League planned an urgent meeting on the crisis tomorrow amid “fears of widening of tension and possible Israeli strike against Syria,” which backs Hezbollah, a senior league official in Cairo said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa blamed Israel for the escalating violence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and denied his country had a role in either abduction.

“It’s up to the resistance — both the Lebanese and the Palestinian — to decide what they are doing and why are they fighting,” he told reporters in Damascus.

The top U.N. official in Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, met with Lebanon’s prime minister and denounced Hezbollah’s incursion across the border into northern Israel, known as the Blue Line.

“Hezbollah’s action escalates the already tense situation along the Blue Line and is an act of very dangerous proportions,” he said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, on a visit to Cairo, said the soldiers’ capture was “a very dangerous escalation.”

He accused Syria of interfering to prevent a solution to the abduction of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized by Gaza militants.

“We are dismayed that so far there are some who are intending to interfere,” he said.

Jubilant residents of south Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah, and Palestinians in the Ein el-Hilwa refugee camp fired in the air and set off firecrackers for more than an hour after the capture of the Israeli soldiers was announced.

Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three Israeli soldiers were killed in Hezbollah’s initial raid and another three died in a tank hit by Hezbollah fighters as it crossed the border.

Israeli security officials said their troops had crossed into a southwestern sector of Lebanon, near where the soldiers were seized, to keep their captors from moving them deeper into Lebanon.

Israeli warplanes made their deepest foray into Lebanon in an afternoon strike on a road in the Zahrani region along the Mediterranean coast — about halfway between the border and the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Anti-aircraft guns opened fire on jets flying over the coastal city of Sidon.

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz warned the Lebanese government that the Israeli military will target infrastructure and “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years,” if the soldiers are not returned, Israeli TV reported.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and withdrew after high casualties on both sides.

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