BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israel unleashed a furious military
campaign on Lebanon's main airport, highways, military bases and other targets
Thursday, retaliating for scores of Hezbollah guerrilla rockets that rained down
on Israel and reached as far as Haifa, its third-largest city, for the first
time. (More stories and pictures, click here
Lebanese civil defense
workers stand in front of fuel storage tanks set ablaze after Israeli
helicopter gunships unleashed missiles at Rafik Hariri International
Airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, late Thursday, July 13, 2006. One Israeli
helicopter gunship raked the fuel depots with machine gun fire while three
others fired air-to-surface missiles. Officials said about a dozen
projectiles struck the tanks on the eastern edge of the airport premises,
and that several others missed. [AP]
Israel kept up the barrage early Friday with airstrikes in south Beirut where
Hezbollah is headquartered, Lebanese police and witnesses said.
The death toll in two days of fighting rose to 57 people with the sudden
burst of violence sending shock waves through a region already traumatized by
Iraq and the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. It
shattered the relative calm in Lebanon that followed Israel's pullout from its
occupied zone in south Lebanon in 2000 and the withdrawal of Syrian forces last
Israel's target was Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant Shiite faction
which has a free hand in southern Lebanon and also holds seats in parliament.
Hezbollah sparked the current conflict Wednesday with a cross-border raid that
captured two of Israel's soldiers.
Israel said it was determined to beat Hezbollah back and deny the militant
fighters positions they have held along the border since 2000.
The Lebanese government, caught in the middle, pleaded for a cease-fire.
"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," Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz
Israeli warplanes stepped up the pressure early Friday. Police and witnesses
said strikes targeted a fuel storage tank and southern suburbs where Hezbollah
has its political headquarters. Explosions from at least seven missiles were
heard by two AP journalists and other witnesses near the scene. Anti-aircraft
fire echoed as Israel jets roared over the capital.
Lebanese television stations said the jets damaged two bridges and a plaza
where Hezbollah leaders hold rallies. They carried unconfirmed reports of
several people injured. The TV footage showed broken glass and debris covering
streets and a young man with bloodied face and chest walking from a damaged
Friday morning's violence came hours after Israel dropped leaflets in the
area warning residents to avoid areas where Hezbollah operates.
Fears mounted among Arab and European governments that violence in Lebanon
could spiral out of control.
Israeli analysts warned that Syria, which supports Hezbollah and plays host
to Hamas' political leader Khaled Mashaal, could be Israel's next target.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said any Israeli attack against Syria
would be an aggression on the whole Islamic world and warned of a harsh
reaction, the official Iranian news agency reported Friday.
The agency said Ahmadinejad made the comments in a telephone call to Syrian
President Bashar Assad.
At the United Nations, the United States blocked an Arab-backed resolution
that would have demanded Israel halt its military offensive in the Gaza Strip,
the first U.N. Security Council veto in nearly two years.
Israel's offensive was among its heaviest in Lebanon since it invaded the
neighboring country and occupied its capital 24 years ago. Two days of Israeli
bombings killed 45 Lebanese and two Kuwaitis and wounded 103. Two Israeli
civilians and eight Israeli soldiers have also been killed, the military's
highest death toll in four years.
With Beirut's international airport closed after Israeli bombs ripped apart
its runway, many tourists were trapped while others drove over the mountains to
Syria ！ though Israeli warplanes struck the highway linking Beirut to the Syrian
capital of Damascus early Friday, closing the country's main artery and further
isolating Lebanon from the outside world.
Beirut residents stayed indoors, leaving the streets of the capital largely
empty. Others packed supermarkets to stock up on goods. Long lines formed on gas
stations, with many quickly running out of gas.
Israel said its attacks were to prevent the movement of the captured soldiers
and hamper Hezbollah's military capacity. It said it had information Hezbollah
was trying to take the two soldiers to its ally, Iran ！ an allegation denied by
the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Israel launched an offensive in Gaza against Hamas, whose fighters are
holding another Israeli soldier captured two weeks ago.
Early Friday, Israeli aircraft struck targets in several parts of Gaza and a
Palestinian was killed when an Israeli tank shell struck his truck, officials
said. There were no reports of injury in the air raids, which damaged a main
road and offices and training camps of militants.
The shockwaves from the fighting on two fronts began to be felt as oil prices
surged Thursday to a record above $78 a barrel in world markets, also agitated
by the threat of supply disruptions in the Middle East and beyond.
President Bush, speaking of the Lebanon offensive, backed Israel's right to
defend itself and denounced Hezbollah as "a group of terrorists who want to stop
the advance of peace."
But he also expressed worries the Israeli assault could cause the fall of
Lebanon's anti-Syrian government. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy
in Lebanon," Bush said in Germany.
The European Union took a harsher tone, criticizing Israel for using what it
called "disproportionate" force. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he
was planning a peace mission.
The Arab League called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo on
Saturday, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel's Lebanon
offensive "is raising our fears of a new regional war."
Egypt launched a diplomatic bid to resolve the crisis, amid apparent
frustration among moderate Arab nations that Hezbollah ！ and by implication its
top ally Syria ！ had started the fight with Israel.
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's political heavyweight and economic powerhouse,
accused Hezbollah guerrillas ！ without naming them ！ of "uncalculated
adventures" that precipitated the latest Middle East crisis.
"The kingdom sees that it is time for those elements to alone shoulder the
full responsibility for this irresponsible behavior and that the burden of
ending the crisis falls on them alone," according to a Saudi official quoted by
the Saudi Press Agency.