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Friday, July 14, 2006

Intensifying Israeli attacks on Lebanon raise world concern

Fri, 14 Jul 2006, 01:10

Israeli forces have intensified their attacks on Lebanon in pre-dawn raids, striking at the heart of Hezbollah's command headquarters in Beirut's suburbs, amid world concern that the escalation could spark a regional war.

At least 46 civilians were killed Thursday as Israeli jets pounded Lebanon in retaliation for the capture and killing of soldiers by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Friday was the third straight day of Israeli attacks on Lebanon and the international community reacted with calls for restraint and the hasty sending of envoys to the region.

A UN Security Council meeting has been called for Friday at the urgent request of the Lebanese government, while Arab foreign ministers were due to meet on Saturday.

Worried about a rapid escalation of Middle East violence, the United States urged Israel to exercise restraint and called on allies and regional powers to try to contain the crisis.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley praised UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's initiative to send a three-person team to the region to try to defuse the volatile situation.

The UN delegation and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana were to make snap visits to the region in an attempt to contain the conflict.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia indirectly accused Hezbollah of "adventurism" for its capture of two Israeli soldiers that prompted the major offensive, the kingdom's official news agency reported.

The agency, which did not mention Hezbollah by name but appeared to implicitly refer to the group throughout, said "these elements... risk putting in danger all the Arab countries".

In a series of pre-dawn strikes Friday, Israeli forces bombarded Hezbollah's command headquarters in Beirut's Shiite-dominant southern suburbs, several bridges leading to the international airport and a power station south of the capital.

On Thursday, Israeli forces hit Beirut's international airport in two air strikes that damaged runways, sent fuel tanks in flames and forced Lebanon's only international airport to shut down completely.

Israel has imposed an air and sea blockade on its northern neighbour in the deadliest violence in 10 years, and its overnight attacks on Friday severed the main highway leading to neighboring Syria through which thousands of tourists had been fleeing.

Israel has accused Syria and Iran for the crisis, saying its two arch-foes formed an "axis of terror" along with Hezbollah and Palestinian militant group Hamas, the target of a devastating offensive in the Gaza Strip.

In an indication the offensive was far from over, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorised the army "to press on with its operation in Lebanon and hit more targets".

As international concern mounted over the bloodshed, US President George W. Bush said Israel had the right to defend itself but several European powers criticised the scale of the Israeli operation as disproportionate.

Britain called for "restraint on all sides" and a return to peace talks.

UN chief Kofi Annan's personal representative to Lebanon, Gier Pederson, said he was "highly alarmed by Israel's heavy attacks and escalation" while the Arab League has called an emergency meeting on Saturday.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas warned of the risk of "regional war."

Bush also said that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who was forced to end 29 years of military domination in Lebanon last year, should be held to account over the escalation of violence.

For his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Assad in a telephone call that Israel would receive a "stinging response" from the Islamic world if it committed any aggression against Syria.

After a day of relentless air raids on targets across southern Lebanon on Thursday, two rockets fired from south Lebanon penetrated deeper than ever inside Israel by hitting its third largest city of Haifa. However Hezbollah denied it was involved.

The attack on Haifa, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Lebanese border, came after a string of other rocket attacks in northern Israel left three people dead and wounded more than 50 civilians.

The army ordered some half a million Israelis in northern towns, including Haifa, to enter bomb shelters and reinforced rooms.

Lebanon has been mired in its own political crisis since the murder of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and is still rebuilding after the devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

The Lebanese government -- which includes a Hezbollah minister but is led by anti-Syrian politicians -- denied any involvement in the Hezbollah action and demanded a "complete and immediate ceasefire"."

Hezbollah, the Party of God, which was instrumental in forcing the Israeli troops out of Lebanon in 2000, has said it was seeking the release of Arab prisoners in return for the soldiers.

Israel also kept up its offensive on the Gaza Strip, bombing the Palestinian foreign ministry overnight in the latest wave of air strikes over the seizure of another soldier three weeks ago by Palestinian militants also seeking a prisoners' swap.

The return of Israeli troops to Gaza 10 months after the army ended a 38-year-occupation has already evoked painful memories of its disastrous full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982 where soldiers became bogged down in a deadly quagmire before finally leaving.

A total of 75 Palestinians have also been killed in the military onslaught against Gaza, which the United Nations has warned is causing a humanitarian crisis in one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

Israel has launched air strikes almost nightly in Gaza in a bid to stop rocket attacks and secure the release of an Israeli corporal captured on June 25 by three groups including the armed wing of Hamas -- which is branded a terrorist movement by Israel and the West.
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