By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 20, 2006
BEIRUT, Aug. 19 -- Helicopter-borne Israeli commandos raided a Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley early Saturday, setting off a fierce gun battle. Lebanon called the attack a "flagrant violation" of a fragile six-day-old cease-fire and threatened to halt troop deployments in protest.
Hezbollah, which battled the Israeli military for 33 days until the truce took hold Monday, said its fighters encountered the Israeli commandos in a field near the town of Boudai, about 20 miles from the Syrian border.
The Israeli military, confirming the raid, said its commandos carried out the operation to interdict shipments of weapons and munitions to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran. The military said one Israeli officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded, one seriously.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told reporters in Beirut that the attack was a "flagrant violation" of the U.N. cease-fire and that he planned to lodge a complaint with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Later Saturday, Annan said that he agreed the raid violated the cease-fire agreement and that he was "deeply concerned."
Hezbollah issued no immediate reaction. But many Lebanese worried that the militant Shiite Muslim movement would retaliate, risking a chain of cease-fire violations that could rekindle the devastating war that drove nearly a fourth of Lebanon's inhabitants from their homes and inflicted an estimated $3.6 billion in damage to bridges, roads and other infrastructure.
In accepting the cease-fire, the Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, warned that his militia reserved the right to attack Israelis as long as they remain on Lebanese soil. At the same time, the Israeli military declared that it reserved the right to respond to attacks and prevent weapons shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas in the southern border hills until an international force was in place.
In practice, however, Hezbollah has held its fire even though an unknown number of Israeli troops remain in observation posts scattered across the rocky Lebanese hills just north of the border. Until Saturday, Israel also had refrained from attacks of any size on Hezbollah fighters in the border area or on other Hezbollah installations farther north. The restraint by both sides had led to optimism in Beirut that the truce would hold and that rebuilding could begin -- optimism that suddenly came under doubt.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said the raid was not a violation of the cease-fire because it was in response to a violation by Hezbollah. "If the other side violates the cease-fire, then we are entitled to act," Regev said.
"Had the Lebanese forces, augmented by international troops, been on the border crossing points with Syria the way they should have been, then our attack would have been superfluous," he added. "Hopefully, those international troops will be there soon and then there will be no need for these kinds of actions. In the interim, we cannot have an open border with arms coming from Syria to rearm Hezbollah. The violation of the cease-fire is the arms transfer from Syria to Lebanon."
The Lebanese military, which stood aside during the war, has begun deploying along the border with Syria in northern and eastern Lebanon, in addition to its deployment over the last three days in villages along the southern border with Israel. But the frontier with Syria remains far from secured, officials acknowledged, and Israel is unlikely to relax its vigilance against Hezbollah arms deliveries.
The Lebanese defense minister, Elias Murr, said Lebanon would stop moving troops into the southern part of the country if the United Nations did not intervene, the Associated Press reported.
"We have put the matter forward in a serious manner and the U.N. delegation was understanding of the seriousness of the situation," Murr said. "We are awaiting an answer."
Israeli officials have said they are counting on the arrival of an international peacekeeping force to guarantee that the arms shipments stop. About 50 French military engineers arrived in southern Lebanon as a vanguard of the European and other soldiers who, under the U.N. resolution, will be assigned to reinforce the 2,000-member United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
But France and other European nations have expressed reluctance to commit troops to the operation until its U.N. mandate is clearly laid out. France, which was expected to provide several thousand troops, has limited its new contribution to 200. As a result, negotiations on assembling, transporting and tasking the additional peacekeepers could drag out in the days ahead, increasing the risk of cease-fire violations.
Boudai, which lies in the foothills of the Mount Lebanon chain about 10 miles northwest of Baalbek, has long been known as a Hezbollah stronghold. Local officials speculated that a senior Hezbollah leader, Sheik Mohammed Yazbek, may have been the commandos' target. Other Lebanese suggested that the raid may have been an attempt to recover two Israeli soldiers whose seizure by Hezbollah commandos on July 12 precipitated the war.
The Israeli military, however, specified that preventing the transport of weapons was its objective. "The goals were achieved in full," it added in a statement.
Lebanese residents and security officials reported that Israeli planes were heard in the Bekaa Valley through the night, prompting fears of a raid. When they landed around 5 a.m., the Israeli special troops drove toward Boudai in two vehicles transported into Lebanon by helicopters, they said. When challenged, the Israelis identified themselves as Lebanese army troops, but the ploy failed and Hezbollah fighters opened fire, they added.
Hezbollah fighters found bloody bandages and syringes on the ground after the battle, leading them to conclude that the Israelis suffered casualties, according to Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, a Hezbollah ally. Hezbollah's al-Manar television reported a number of Israeli casualties but did not say whether they were killed or wounded.
Lebanese security officials told the Reuters news agency that three Hezbollah fighters were killed, but Hezbollah did not confirm the toll.
Correspondent Doug Struck in Jerusalem contributed to this report.