- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

NABATIYA, Lebanon — Israel mounted a massive military offensive to seal off Lebanon from the outside world yesterday, blockading ports, destroying runways and bombing the main road from Beirut to Damascus amid fears that Hezbollah fighters planned to smuggle two kidnapped Israeli soldiers out of the country.

“Nothing is safe” in Lebanon, said Israeli army chief Dan Halutz, adding that Hezbollah offices and residences in Beirut would be targeted.

Yesterday marked Israel’s biggest offensive against its northern neighbor in more than two decades, one day after Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a daring cross-border raid.

Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon, responded to the offensive by firing more than 100 rockets into Israel, including two missiles that hit the port city of Haifa nearly 20 miles from the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah, which normally takes credit for such attacks, denied that it had fired at Haifa.

In a pre-dawn raid today, Israeli planes attacked a Beirut suburb housing the headquarters of Hezbollah, said an Agence France-Presse photographer who witnessed the attack.

The fighter-bombers fired missiles into the Shi’ite suburb south of Beirut after which Hezbollah militants blocked access to the area.

President Bush, during a visit to Germany, urged Israel not to destabilize the pro-Western government in Beirut, even as he acknowledged the nation’s right to defend itself.

“My biggest concern is whether or not actions taken [by Israel] will weaken the Siniora government,” Mr. Bush said, referring to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. “Democracy in Lebanon is an important part of laying a foundation for peace in that region.”

Last night, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered even more intense attacks on Lebanon today.

Israeli officials were tight-lipped, but the threat of an Israeli ground offensive to drive Hezbollah from its stronghold in southern Lebanon gained credence after the attack on Haifa.

“All options are available,” Israeli army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said when asked about such an offensive. “Strategically speaking, if the third-largest city in Israel is under attack, it’s a big thing and a response can be expected.”

During the course of the day, Israel solidified its air, ground and sea blockade on Lebanon as it surrounded ports with gunboats, peppered airfields with bomb craters and destroyed most bridges on Lebanon’s highway system south of Beirut.

Helicopter gunships returned to Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, setting a fuel depot ablaze after a strike earlier in the day.

As night fell on the capital, air strikes were reported in Beirut’s southern suburbs — hotbeds of support for Hezbollah.

The highway connecting Beirut to the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre has been shattered in several places, forcing refugees from the fighting on the border to flee on foot for large portions of the journey to the relative safety of Beirut.

Outside the town of Damour, about 10 miles south of Beirut, bombs late Wednesday night had destroyed a highway overpass, leaving giant craters that Lebanese army engineers were attempting to fill with mounds of dirt.

A few hours earlier, an Israeli rocket struck the studios of Hezbollah’s television station, al-Manar, located in suburban Beirut.

One person was wounded, and Hezbollah officials and station employees at the site of the bombing were scrambling to deal with an onslaught of local journalists demanding access to the scene when another Israeli plane swooped in, sending reporters and Hezbollah officials alike running for cover.

The death toll in two days of fighting rose to 57 persons, including 10 Israelis, the Associated Press reported.

Lebanese authorities said the dead included 10 children and the wife of a Hezbollah-affiliated cleric, killed a few miles from the Israeli border.

At the funeral for the family, a relative of several victims, who gave his name as Yousef, said: “All people want peace, as do the people of Lebanon. But we need justice amid this occupation. We want peace and justice for all people, Muslim and Christian, Jew and Arab.”

But in the basement of a mosque, he was forced to sort through the bodies of his brother’s family — as the bombs left only three bodies identifiable — and quickly became outraged over the body of his 6-month-old niece.

“Here, show the world the arms and weapons my brother kept in his house,” he said.

Just outside the southern town of Nabatiya, shops mostly were shuttered, and a few still flew the flags of Portugal, Brazil, Germany, France and Italy, left from fans of the World Cup.

The attack on Lebanon coincided with an ongoing offensive in Gaza, where an Israeli soldier was kidnapped by the militant group Hamas last month.

At the United Nations in New York, the United States vetoed an Arab-backed resolution that would have demanded that Israel halt its military offensive in Gaza.

The United States was alone in voting against the resolution. Ten of the 15 Security Council nations voted in favor, while Britain, Denmark, Peru and Slovakia abstained.

The Security Council is due to take up the Israel-Lebanon battle in an emergency session today.

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