Thursday, 20 July 2006

Israel hits Hezbollah stronghold

Militants say Beirut bombing missed leaders

BOSTON GLOBE | July 20, 2006
By Matthew Kalman and Thanassis Cambanis,
Globe Correspondent and Globe Staff

BEIRUT -- Israeli warplanes last night dropped bombs on a bunker in south Beirut where Israel said Hezbollah leaders were meeting, dramatically escalating the conflict on the deadliest day yet in Israel's week-long offensive against the Islamic militant group.

Residents of the Lebanese capital heard three huge explosions just after 10 p.m. Hezbollah said early today that none of its leaders had been killed or wounded in the air attack in the Bourj al Barajneh section, located in the Shi'ite zone where Hezbollah has significant strength.

It was unclear whether Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was in the bunker at the time. The Israeli military said early today only that its forces had attacked a bunker ``where senior Hezbollah members were gathered."

Even if unsuccessful, the attack demonstrated Israel's willingness to ratchet up the scale of its campaign to drive Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and destroy its ability to attack Israel. The airstrike occurred on a day of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants in the first serious Israeli ground engagement inside Lebanon in the current offensive.

Israeli warplanes continued to pound Hezbollah targets across southern Lebanon, fueling a wave of refugees fleeing their homes and heading north toward safety.

Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, said Israeli attacks had killed 300 people and caused ``unimaginable losses" in Lebanese infrastructure since last Thursday, and he called for an immediate cease-fire. International pressure mounted for Israel to halt its campaign, but Israeli officials showed no sign of easing pressure on Hezbollah, which ignited the current offensive with a deadly cross-border attack against an Israeli patrol July 12 in which two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped.

Two Israeli soldiers and two Hezbollah fighters were reported killed in a firefight yesterday just inside Lebanon when the soldiers discovered a Hezbollah munitions cache on the site of an abandoned Israeli outpost dating from the occupation of southern Lebanon.

Israel wants to avoid a messy ground war, which would undercut its military advantage against Hezbollah and might provoke major internal debate among Israelis still smarting from the 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended with a withdrawal in 2000.

At least 55 Lebanese were reported killed in Israeli airstrikes and ground operations on Wednesday alone, making it the deadliest day so far.

Two young Israeli-Arab brothers also were killed in the first rocket attack on the old city of Nazareth, site of the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Hezbollah also fired about 100 rockets in an arc across northern Israel from Haifa in the west to Tiberias in the east.

The four Israeli casualties brought the Israeli death toll for the week to 29.

In Beirut, a luxury American cruise liner and two Chinook helicopters joined the international flotilla evacuating thousands of foreign nationals from Beirut, where Siniora, the prime minister, angrily rejected international claims that Israel was acting in self-defense.

Siniora said Lebanon would seek compensation from Israel for the widespread destruction of the past week, which has forced about half a million people from their homes.

``Is this what the international community calls the right of self-defense? Is this the price to pay?" Siniora demanded of ambassadors gathered in Beirut. ``We will spare no avenue to make Israel compensate."

Israel said its forces repelled an attempt by Hezbollah fighters to infiltrate across the border near Metulla.

In Jerusalem, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana discussed possible diplomatic solutions to the crisis in talks with Israeli leaders, but Syria denied entry to a United Nations team trying to put together a cease-fire.

In Geneva, the top UN human rights official warned that the scale of civilian casualties inflicted in the current conflict could constitute war crimes, though she did not make specific accusations.

``The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control," said Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Israeli security chiefs said they had now destroyed about half of Hezbollah's military capacity, with fighter jets and helicopter gunships flying about 150 sorties each day, attacking Hezbollah's rocket launchers, military outposts, and weapons depots as well as communication and transportation arteries.

The victims yesterday included civilians on both sides of the border.

Five people were killed when an Israeli missile hit a neighborhood in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, police and hospital officials said.

The target was a commercial office of a firm belonging to Hezbollah, but those killed were residents.

In the village of Srifa, near Tyre in southern Lebanon, the airstrikes flattened 15 houses. The village's headman, Hussein Kamaledine, said 25 to 30 people lived in the houses, but it was not known if they were at home. Many people have fled southern Lebanon.

``This is a real massacre," Kamaledine told Al-Manar TV as fire engines extinguished the blaze and rescuers searched for survivors.

In Nazareth in northern Israel, 3-year-old Rabia Abed Taluzi and his brother Mahmoud, 7, were playing close to their family home when they were killed by a direct hit from a rocket which landed in the street nearby.

``It's a vacation and it's afternoon, so where will they go if not to play in the streets?" Mohammed Assawi, a neighbor, told Israel's Channel 10 News.

``It is unpleasant to say what we saw."

Moments later, a second strike hit a building in the town center, sending black smoke billowing into the air.

It was the first attack on the mainly Arab city. Upper Nazareth, the predominantly Jewish new town nearby, was hit over the weekend.

Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, told Solana that Israel insisted on three conditions to end the fighting: the return of its kidnapped soldiers, an end to Hezbollah rocket attacks, and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming Hezbollah and the deployment of Lebanese government forces up to the border.

``Israel is fighting to end the control of the Hezbollah over the lives of both Lebanese and Israelis and to bring an end to its attempts to destabilize the region," Livni told reporters after her meeting with Solana.

``Israel and the international community have a common goal, to promote a process that will bring about a long-term and fundamental change in the political reality in the region, and that will eliminate the threat of terrorism facing both Israelis and Lebanese," she said.

Cambanis reported from Beirut, and Kalman from Jerusalem. Material from Associated Press also was used.

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