Israel, Hezbollah Vow Wider War
Saturday, July 15, 2006
BEIRUT, July 15 -- The leader of Hezbollah promised an all-out war Friday after Israeli warplanes attacked his residence and Hezbollah's main headquarters in an apparent assassination attempt, and Israel vowed to press its offensive in Lebanon until the Shiite Muslim militant group was disarmed. As Hasan Nasrallah spoke, an Israeli warship was struck and set ablaze off the Lebanese coast in an unprecedented strike, possibly by an unmanned drone.
The quick succession of events after nightfall again recalibrated a three-day war in which each side has methodically raised the stakes since Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid Wednesday. The Lebanese government urged the U.N. Security Council to establish a cease-fire, to no avail, and the White House said President Bush would not press Israel to halt its attacks.
After a cabinet meeting, Israeli officials said the military would further prosecute an offensive that has already sent scores of missiles into Beirut's international airport, as well as bridges, power stations and roads, and blocked most ways out of the country.
Thousands fled Lebanon across one of the few routes left -- a circuitous trek along mountainous back roads to the Syrian border. The capital itself was eerily quiet, the silence punctuated only by the fireworks and gunfire that greeted Nasrallah's speech.
"You wanted an open war. We are heading towards an open war, and we are ready for it," Nasrallah said by telephone to the group's television station, al-Manar, less than an hour after the Israeli strikes on his residence and the headquarters building.
In the speech, Nasrallah struck a more serious tone than he had Wednesday, when he announced the capture of the two Israeli soldiers and insisted they would be freed only in exchange for three Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. With dramatic phrasing, he said Friday that Lebanese now had two choices: either surrender to Israel's demands or fight with Hezbollah. He renewed a threat to carry the fight deep into Israel, which has so far suffered four dead from the scores of rockets Hezbollah has fired over three days.
"To Haifa?" he asked. "Believe me, beyond Haifa and beyond that."
"The surprises that I have promised you will start now," Nasrallah said. "Now in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people's homes and civilians. Look at it burning."
Israeli news media said the warship was hit 10 miles off the Lebanese coast by an unmanned aircraft rigged with explosives, causing damage to its steering capability and igniting a fire. The Israeli military confirmed to news services that four Israeli sailors were missing.
Military officials refused to confirm the cause of the damage, saying it might have been inflicted by either a missile or a drone. The ship was towed back to Israel.
The attack would not mark the first known use of unmanned aerial drones by Hezbollah. Twice in the past two years, its operatives have launched unarmed drones that penetrated Israeli airspace. In the most recent incident, in April 2005, an Iranian-made drone that took off just north of the Israeli border flew for nearly nine minutes over Jewish settlements in western Galilee before returning to its base, Israeli military officials confirmed. The low-flying drone was equipped with a camera that filmed the entire 18-mile flight, portions of which were later broadcast on a Web site controlled by Hezbollah.
In Lebanon on Friday, Israeli jets again struck the Beirut airport after the Lebanese national carrier managed to fly five planes to Amman, Jordan. As part of its tightening siege, Israel also struck the Beirut-to-Damascus highway overnight, and warships extended their naval blockade to the northern port of Tripoli.