By Anthony Shadid and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 13, 2006; A01
BEIRUT, July 13 -- The Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah infiltrated the Israeli border Wednesday in a brazen raid, capturing two Israeli soldiers, killing three others and prompting Israeli attacks on the airport in Beirut and bridges, roads, power stations and military positions across the hillsides of southern Lebanon. Five more Israeli soldiers were killed after the army entered Lebanon in pursuit, one of the military's highest one-day death tolls in more than four years.
The capture of the soldiers and the fighting effectively opened a second front for Israel, whose troops entered the Gaza Strip last month in search of a soldier seized June 25. Within hours, reverberations rolled across an already tense region. The United States blamed Syria and Iran for the abduction, and Israeli tanks and troops moved toward the Lebanese border throughout the day. In Lebanon and elsewhere, the attack emboldened Hezbollah's supporters, who greeted the news by handing out sweets and setting off fireworks.
The fighting took a dramatic turn early Thursday with Israeli attacks on the Beirut airport and Hezbollah's television station in the capital's predominantly Shiite Muslim southern suburbs. Lebanese television reported that Israeli aircraft attacked two runways, forcing the facility to close and sending flights to airports elsewhere in the Middle East. Footage showed a column of black smoke drifting over the modern facility, considered an emblem of Lebanon's post-civil war reconstruction.
Into the morning, Israel escalated its raids across southern Lebanon, with artillery and aircraft pounding targets. Civilian casualties mounted; Lebanese television said at least 27 Lebanese were killed, including a family of 12 in the village of Dweir. Hezbollah said it fired rockets at targets across northern Israel, part of an arsenal that it said numbers as many as 13,000.
About 7 a.m. Thursday, a Katyusha rocket landed on the main street in the Israeli resort city of Nahariya, killing one woman and injuring at least 10 people. In the following half-hour, more than a dozen other rockets struck near downtown and other areas of the city, five miles inside the Israeli border. Sirens sounded for people to assemble in bomb shelters.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel held Lebanon for the responsible for the Hezbollah raid and promised a "painful and far-reaching response," a threat that recalled broad Israeli offensives in southern Lebanon in 1993 and 1996. "The murderous attack this morning was not a terrorist act, it was an act of war," Olmert said in Jerusalem.
Hezbollah said it carried out the attack about 9:05 a.m., when its fighters managed to cross the heavily fortified border near Shtula, an Israeli farming town of about 350 people. Hezbollah guerrillas fired on two Israeli army Humvees, killing three soldiers and capturing two others.
Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, said an hour passed before Israeli forces set out to recover the captives, giving Hezbollah time to smuggle them to a place he called "safe and far, far, far away." He said the attack had been planned for months and was aimed at forcing negotiations that would win the release of three Lebanese held in Israeli jails.
"Let this be clear, the prisoners will only return home through indirect negotiations and a trade," Nasrallah told reporters at a news conference in southern Beirut, one of Hezbollah's strongholds. "If the Israelis are considering any military action to bring the hostages home, they are delusional, delusional, delusional."
"We don't want an escalation in the south, nor war," he said. "But if the Israelis want an escalation, then we are ready for a confrontation and to its furthest extent. If Israel chooses confrontation, we are ready, and it should expect surprises."
Israeli officials said Wednesday that operations by the military -- known formally as the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF -- could escalate and, at least publicly, they ruled out negotiations on the two soldiers' release.
"The government of Lebanon is directly responsible for the fate of the IDF soldiers, and it must act immediately and seriously to locate them, to prevent any harm done to them, and to return them to Israel," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said in a statement. "The state of Israel will take any measure it sees fit, and the IDF will be instructed accordingly."
The attack by Hezbollah, a powerful, armed Shiite Muslim faction that takes part in the Lebanese government and effectively controls the border, created a quandary for Lebanon, Israel and the United States.
Israel moved deeper into the Gaza Strip -- where hospital officials said 23 Palestinians were killed on Wednesday, most of them civilians -- but has so far been unable to free the 19-year-old Israeli corporal who was kidnapped almost three weeks ago. It faces even more difficult terrain in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah draws most of its support.
The United States called the border attack a terrorist act, but U.S. officials appeared reluctant to see fighting wreck a country that has emerged as one of the success stories of Bush administration policy in the Middle East. Lebanon's government, in a carefully worded statement, said it had no knowledge of the attack and was not responsible for it.
Wednesday's death toll on the border was the highest for the Israeli military in major fighting since April 9, 2002, when 13 of its soldiers were killed during fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin. Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed in the day's fighting.
After the abduction, Israeli troops entered Lebanon in force for the first time since May 2000, when the military ended its presence on a rocky, hilly swath of southern Lebanon that it had first occupied in 1978. Four Israeli soldiers were killed when their tank struck a mine, and Hezbollah broadcast video footage of what was described as the wreckage through the day.
The eighth slain soldier was killed trying to retrieve the ruined tank and the remains of his colleagues in the evening, the Israeli army said. A small contingent of Israeli troops remained inside the Lebanese border as darkness fell, trying to recover the remains of the dead soldiers.
From midmorning Wednesday, Israeli forces struck dozens of targets -- bridges, roads, power stations and Hezbollah posts -- in what the military called an effort to slow the movements of the soldiers' captors.
On Lebanon's Mediterranean coast south of Sidon, Israeli warplanes bombed at least five bridges in quick succession, effectively cutting southern Lebanon off from the rest of the country. At least two Lebanese civilians were killed in one of the strikes, civil defense officials said. Israeli gunboats shelled roads stretching north from the border town of Naqurah.
Scores of suddenly stranded Lebanese, their faces drawn, wandered back roads looking for a way home. As they walked, carrying bags, ambulances with their sirens blaring passed them in the other direction.
"We're scared, we're scared. From the moment of the attack until now, we're just scared," said Um Fatima, whose cousin, 40-year-old Mohammed Saghir, was one of those killed in an airstrike on a bridge.
On Israel's side of the border, Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah fighters landed in sage patches and eucalyptus groves. Small brush fires lit up some of the hills near Shtula, and smoke from smoldering roads and bridges in Lebanon appeared in the near distance, sending a dark smudge tailing south for miles at twilight.
The Israeli residents of agricultural towns and even some of the seaside beach resorts were ordered through loudspeakers into bomb shelters and warned of rocket attacks.
Hezbollah last captured an Israeli soldier in October 2000, when it seized three who were later executed or died of wounds suffered as they were taken. The bodies of the three soldiers, along with a civilian kidnapped separately, were returned to Israel in 2004 in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.
The attack Wednesday was almost sure to bolster the martial reputation of Hezbollah, which probably enjoys more support in the rest of the Arab world than in Lebanon itself, where other sectarian factions have pushed for it to disarm. Nasrallah has vowed on numerous occasions to seize soldiers as a bargaining chip for the Lebanese prisoners; in one speech, he said it would happen this year.
The broadening of the Israeli response north to Beirut's airport will almost certainly put additional pressures on Hezbollah, both inside the country and abroad. Some Lebanese officials have already questioned whether Hezbollah had the right to make a decision that could potentially drag the entire country into war. But in southern Lebanon, often a battleground between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, the soldiers' capture was praised; residents said they had grown accustomed to the kind of fighting that has followed.
"Look, we're used to it. For 25 years, 26 years, it's been like this," said Hassan Qaryani, 21, a butcher from Burj Rahal. He stood with a friend, Mohammed Tahine, near a destroyed bridge, looking down at the rubble and tangled iron rods.
He called the kidnapping "like a crown on my head."
"As soon as I heard the news I was overjoyed," he said. "It was like Italy winning the World Cup."
His friend grinned as he looked at the bridge. "If you don't destroy, then you don't build," he said.
Early Thursday in the Gaza Strip, where more than 70 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed since June 28, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the building housing the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Foreign Ministry, according to the Associated Press. Palestinian medical workers said 13 people in the neighborhood, including six children, were injured. Before daybreak, a fighter from Islamic Jihad was killed and one was wounded in an Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza.
Wilson reported from Shtula and Nahariya. Special correspondents Alia Ibrahim in Beirut, Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza City and Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.