- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

2:28 p.m.

BEIRUT (AP) — Israel intensified its attacks against Lebanon today, blasting Beirut’s airport and two Lebanese army air bases near the Syrian border and imposing a naval blockade. More than 50 people have died in violence after the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants.

Warplanes punched holes in the runways of Beirut’s international airport and two military air bases, attacks that could draw the Lebanese army into the conflict.

Israel’s army chief, Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz, warned that “nothing is safe” in Lebanon and that Beirut itself — particularly Hezbollah offices and residences — would be a target.

Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israeli towns and said it was using a new missile that appeared to be more advanced than previous models. One Israeli was killed, and 12 were injured.

The militant group also said it would rocket the key Israeli port city of Haifa if Israel hit Beirut, a strike that would be the deepest ever into Israel by the guerrillas — about 18 miles.

Two days of Israeli bombings, the heaviest air campaign against its neighbor in 24 years, had killed 47 Lebanese and wounded 103, Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalife said. Besides the Israeli civilian, eight Israeli soldiers also had been killed.

Both sides played a high-stakes game following the capture of the two soldiers by Hezbollah: Israel sought to end Hezbollah’s presence on the border, while the guerrillas insisted on trading the captured soldiers for Arab prisoners.

Trapped between the two sides was Lebanon, which Israel said it held responsible for Hezbollah’s actions. The Lebanese government insisted it had no prior knowledge of the Hezbollah raid and did not condone it.

Hezbollah fighters operate with almost total autonomy in southern Lebanon, and the government has no control over their actions. Lebanon has long resisted international pressure to disarm the group.

The Israeli warnings of more attacks caused panic in Beirut, and many people stayed home from work. Long lines formed at gas stations, and supermarkets were packed.

The violence reverberated throughout the region and pushed crude oil prices to a new intraday record of $76.30 a barrel.

Western countries, Russia and the United Nations called for restraint and demanded the return of the soldiers. The Arab League called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday. The Lebanese Cabinet urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene.

The European Union criticized Israel for using what it called “disproportionate” force in its attacks, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was planning a peace mission.

President Bush pledged to work with Israel, criticizing Hezbollah for thwarting efforts for peace in the Middle East.

“My attitude is this: There are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace,” he said at a news conference in Germany. “The soldiers need to be returned.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s Lebanon offensive “is raising our fears of a new regional war” and urged world powers to intervene.

Middle East satellite TV stations focused on the violence, and one station showed a man holding a baby killed in the Israeli bombings.

The eight Israeli soldiers killed so far count as the highest death toll for the army in four years. Three soldiers died in the initial Hezbollah raid, and four were killed when their tank struck a land mine Wednesday.

In northern Israel, thousands of civilians spent the night in underground shelters as Hezbollah fired rockets at northern Israel. A 40-year-old Israeli woman was killed and five persons were wounded in the rocket attacks, the Israeli army reported.

After hitting roads and bridges in the south all day Wednesday, Israel dramatically expanded its campaign today with its biggest offensive in Lebanon since Israel’s 1982 invasion.

Israeli warships imposed a naval blockade of Lebanese ports, and the Israeli military said it also could target the Beirut-to-Damascus highway, the main land link between Lebanon and the outside world.

Military jets attacked runways at the Rayak air base in the eastern Bekaa Valley, police said, and at the Qoleiat air base near the Syrian border in the north. Rayak, four miles west of the Syrian border, is home to the country’s main military air base and is military headquarters in eastern Lebanon.

Because Lebanon’s army has no operational fixed-wing aircraft and only operates helicopters — which can take off or land anywhere — the attacks appeared to be mostly symbolic.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said his forces would not allow Hezbollah guerrillas to occupy positions along the southern Lebanese border.

“If the government of Lebanon fails to deploy its forces, as is expected of a sovereign government, we shall not allow Hezbollah forces to remain any further on the borders of the state of Israel,” Mr. Peretz said.

Air force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said the campaign was likely Israel’s largest ever in Lebanon “if you measure it in number of targets hit in one night, the complexity of the strikes.” The last major offensive against Lebanon was in 1996, when about 150 Lebanese civilians were killed.

Travelers to and from Beirut were stranded all over the region and beyond after the airport strike. Among them was Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, who was returning from a visit to Armenia and, like many, was forced to make his way home through Syria.

Israeli warplanes blasted craters into all three runways at the airport, located by the seaside in the Lebanese capital’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, forcing incoming flights to divert to Cyprus. The main terminal of the $500 million airport remained intact.

The Israeli military said it struck the airport because it is “a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to the Hezbollah terrorist organization.”

• Associated Press reporter Karin Laub in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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