BEIRUT — Israeli missiles destroyed the headquarters of the leader of the Hezbollah terrorists yesterday and tightened the seal on Lebanon by cutting air and road links to the outside world.
Hezbollah’s Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and his family were safe after the missiles demolished the two buildings in Beirut’s crowded southern neighborhoods, the militant group said.
In northern Israel, 220,000 people hunkered in bomb shelters amid a rocket barrage by Hezbollah. At least 50 rockets hit seven towns and communities in Israel, including Safed and Nahariya, where two persons were killed a day earlier. Since Wednesday, 61 Israelis have been wounded.
“You wanted an open war, and we are ready for an open war,” Sheik Nasrallah told Israelis in an audiotape played on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television. The speech had been previously recorded and did not refer to the missile attack.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah rockets hit an Israeli warship in Lebanese waters that had been firing missiles into southern Beirut.
Al Jazeera reported that the Israeli military was searching for four missing troops. Israeli officials offered no comment. An army spokesman said earlier that the ship apparently had been struck by a rocket and damage was minor and no one was hurt.
It was the most dramatic incident on a violent day in the conflict that erupted suddenly Wednesday and appeared to be careening out of control.
Also a Hezbollah rocket barrage aimed at Israeli warships missed the target and struck a civilian merchant ship in the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli military officials said early today.
The officials did not know the nationality of the ship, or whether there were casualties. The officials could not be identified under military regulations.
Iran, a backer of Hezbollah, warned of a broader war if the Israeli offensive extends into Syria.
“If Israel commits another act of idiocy and aggresses Syria, this will be the same as an aggression against the entire Islamic world and it will receive a stinging response,” said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has made several threats to destroy the Jewish state. In a telephone conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Mr. Ahmadinejad called Israel a “puppet regime that is on its way toward disappearing.”
Israel’s attack on Sheik Nasrallah underlined its determination to take the fight directly to Hezbollah’s leadership, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the campaign would continue until the Hezbollah fighters are neutralized.
Warplanes smashed runways at Beirut’s airport again with hours of air strikes, trying to render it unusable, and destroyed mountain bridges on the main highway to Syria. Israel says the rockets fired at Israeli cities are transshipped from Syria through the airport. Warships blockaded Lebanon’s ports for a second day.
Clouds of smoke drifted over the capital after strikes exploded fuel tanks at one of Beirut’s two main power stations. Apartment buildings were shattered by strikes in southern Beirut. In response, Lebanese artillerists fired at least 50 Katyusha rockets throughout the day, hitting more than a dozen communities across northern Israel.
The death toll in three days of fighting rose to 73 in Lebanon — almost all civilians, including five killed yesterday — and 12 in Israel, including four killed in rocket attacks. The violence shocked the region, even though battles between Israel and Hamas had become routine in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s strikes on the airport and roads and naval blockade all but cut off Lebanon from the world, while strikes on infrastructure aimed to exact a price from its government for allowing Hezbollah to operate freely in the south.
At the same time, strikes on Hezbollah — including ones targeting its leadership in south Beirut — aimed to pressure the Shi’ite Muslim fighters to release the Israeli soldiers captured Wednesday and push the militants away from Israel’s northern border.
Oil prices rose to more than $78 a barrel, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries tried to reassure the market by stressing its commitment to “order and stability.”
Israeli officials said the campaign by the air force was the most extensive since the Israeli incursion in 1982. On the Israeli side, eight soldiers have died and two civilians were killed by Hezbollah rockets on northern towns. At least 11 were wounded in yesterday’s rocket attacks.
The fighting in Lebanon is Israel’s second front. It began an offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago in response to the June 25 capture by Hamas militants of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Throughout the morning, Israeli fighter-bombers pounded runways at Beirut’s airport for a second day, apparently trying to ensure its closure after the Lebanese national carrier, Middle East Airlines, managed to evacuate its last five planes to Amman, Jordan.
Another barrage hit fuel tanks at one of Beirut’s two main power stations at Jiye. For the first time in the assault, strikes targeted the crowded Shi’ite residential neighborhoods in south Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah’s leadership.
An afternoon strike hit an apartment building near Hezbollah’s Al-Nour radio station. The radio continued broadcasting, and Hezbollah TV showed smoke billowing from an apartment in the area and firefighters running toward the building.
“I have huge debts, and now my store is damaged,” said Fadi Haidar, 36, cleaning up broken glass at his appliance shop, which had an estimated $15,000 in damage. “Israel is our enemy, and every Muslim must make a sacrifice,” he said. “As time goes by, they will all realize that [Sheik] Nasrallah is right and is working in the interest of Muslims.”