Israel Destroys Home of Hezbollah Leader
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Israel destroyed the home and office of Hezbollah’s leader Friday and tightened its seal on Lebanon, blasting its air and road links to the outside world to punish the guerrilla group for the capture of two Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah’s Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and his family were safe after the Israeli missiles demolished the two buildings in Beirut’s crowded southern neighborhoods, the militant group said.
“You wanted an open war and we are ready for an open war,” Nasrallah said, addressing Israelis in an audiotape played on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television. The speech apparently was prerecorded and did not refer to the missile attack.
Hezbollah hit an Israeli warship in Lebanese waters that had been firing missiles into southern Beirut. Al-Jazeera reported the Israeli military was searching for four missing troops. Israeli officials would not immediately comment; an army spokesman said earlier the ship had apparently been struck by a rocket but that the damage was minor and no one was hurt.
Israel’s attack on Nasrallah underlined its determination to take the fight directly to Hezbollah’s leadership, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed the massive campaign would continue until the guerrillas were neutralized.
Warplanes again smashed runways at Beirut’s airport with hours of airstrikes, trying to render it unusable, and destroyed mountain bridges on the main highway to Syria. Warships blockaded Lebanon’s ports for a second day.
Smoke drifted over the capital after strikes exploded fuel tanks at one of Beirut’s two main power stations, gradually escalating the damage to Lebanon’s key infrastructure. Apartment buildings were shattered by strikes in south Beirut.
In response, Lebanese guerrillas fired at least 50 Katyusha rockets throughout the day, hitting more than a dozen communities across northern Israel.
The death toll in three days of fighting rose to 73 killed in Lebanon _ almost all civilians, including five killed Friday _ and 12 in Israel, including four killed in rocket attacks. The violence sent shock waves through a region already traumatized by the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.
Israel’s strikes on the airport and roads and naval blockade all but cut off Lebanon from the world, while hits on infrastructure aimed to exact a price from its government for allowing Hezbollah to operate freely in the south.
At the same time, strikes on Hezbollah _ including ones targeting its leadership in south Beirut _ aimed to pressure the Shiite Muslim guerrillas to release the Israeli soldiers captured Wednesday and push the militants away from Israel’s northern border.
President Bush, in Russia for the G-8 summit, spoke by phone with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, and “reiterated his position” that the Israeli attacks should limit any impact on civilians, White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting requested by Lebanon, special envoy Nouhad Mahmoud warned that Israeli attacks “will not resolve the problem, but will further complicate it.” Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said Israel had no choice but to react to the “absolutely unprovoked attack” by Hezbollah.
Oil prices rose to above $78 a barrel, and OPEC tried to reassure the market by stressing its commitment to “order and stability.”
In a telephone call with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Olmert said Israel would not halt its offensive until Hezbollah was disarmed. Olmert agreed to let a U.N. team try to mediate a cease-fire, an official close to Olmert said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Israel against extending its assault into Syria and said the Jewish state couldn’t harm Iran, which also backs Hezbollah.
French President Jacques Chirac said Israel’s actions were “totally disproportionate” but also condemned Hezbollah’s attacks. He implicitly suggested that Syria and Iran might be playing a role in the crisis.
The U.N.’s top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, said Israel’s attacks against transportation infrastructure violated international law and held grave consequences for civilians.
Israeli officials said the campaign by the air force was the biggest since the Israeli invasion in 1982. The only comparable military action since then was the “Grapes of Wrath” offensive in 1996, also sparked by Hezbollah attacks.
But the casualties were mounting faster than in 1996, when at least 165 people were killed in 17 days of fighting. By contrast, 73 people in Lebanon have been killed in only three days of Israel’s bombardment.
On the Israeli side, eight soldiers have died and two civilians were killed by Hezbollah rockets on northern towns. At least 11 were wounded in Friday’s rocket attacks.
Israel says it holds the government responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, but Saniora’s Cabinet has insisted it had no prior knowledge of the raid that seized the soldiers and that it did not condone it.
Hezbollah operates with near autonomy in south Lebanon, and the government has resisted international pressure to disarm it _ a step that could break the country apart. Saniora’s government is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians, some sharply critical of Hezbollah, but the guerrilla group also has two ministers in the Cabinet.
The fighting in Lebanon is Israel’s second front. It launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago in response to the June 25 capture by Hamas militants of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Throughout the morning, Israeli fighter-bombers pounded runways at Beirut’s airport for a second day, apparently trying to ensure its closure after the Lebanese national carrier, Middle East Airlines, managed to evacuate its last five planes to Amman.
Another barrage hit fuel tanks at one of Beirut’s two main power stations at Jiye.
For the first time in the assault, strikes targeted the crowded Shiite residential neighborhoods in south Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah’s leadership.
An initial wave before dawn hit near Hezbollah’s security headquarters and targeted roads, damaging two overpasses. The facades of nearby apartment buildings were shorn away, balconies toppled onto cars and the street was littered by glass from shattered windows. Firefighters struggled to put out several blazes.
A young man with blood pouring down his face was shown on Lebanese TV walking out of a damaged apartment building.
An afternoon strike hit an apartment building near Hezbollah’s Al-Nour radio station. The radio continued broadcasting, and Hezbollah TV showed smoke billowing from an apartment in the area and firefighters running toward the building.
“I have huge debts and now my store is damaged,” said Fadi Haidar, 36, cleaning up broken glass at his appliance shop, which had an estimated $15,000 in damage.
Still, he supported Hezbollah’s decision to seize the soldiers.
“Israel is our enemy and every Muslim must make a sacrifice,” he said. “As time goes by, they will all realize that Sayyed Nasrallah is right and is working in the interest of Muslims.”
Israeli planes also hit transmission antennas for TV stations in the eastern Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold.
Warplanes also bombed the highway between Beirut and Damascus _ Lebanon’s main land link to the outside world _ forcing motorists onto mountainside roads.
In northern Israel, 220,000 people hunkered down in bomb shelters amid Hezbollah’s rocket barrage.
At least 50 rockets hit seven towns and communities in Israel, including Safad and Nahariya _ where two people were killed a day earlier. Since Wednesday, 61 Israelis have been hurt.
The Israeli offensive was causing political waves in Lebanon, with some anti-Syrian politicians accusing Hezbollah of dragging the country into a costly confrontation with Israel.
“Hezbollah is playing a dangerous game that exceeds the border of Lebanon,” Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said in comments published Friday. Jumblatt, a leading anti-Syrian figure, also denounced the Israeli attacks.