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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Israel calls Hizbollah capture of soldiers act of war

QASMIYEH, Lebanon, July 12 (Reuters) - Hizbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed up to seven Israelis in Lebanese border violence on Wednesday, further inflaming Middle East tensions.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the Hizbollah attacks as an "act of war" by Lebanon and promised a "very painful and far-reaching" response.

Israel mobilised a reserve infantry division and Hizbollah declared an all-out military alert.

Two Lebanese civilians were killed in an Israeli air strike on a coastal bridge at Qasmiyeh. Four other bridges in the south were hit and five Lebanese were wounded, security sources said.

The sources said the Israeli soldiers had been seized at around 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) across the border from Aita al-Shaab, some 15 km (nine miles) from the Mediterranean coast.

Israeli ground forces also crossed into Lebanon to hunt for the missing soldiers, Israeli Army Radio said. Hizbollah and the Lebanese authorities said there was no major incursion.

Israeli troops have not struck deep into Lebanon since they withdrew from a southern border strip in 2000 after Hizbollah's Shi'ite fighters waged an 18-year war of attrition against them.

Israel is already engaged in an expanding military offensive in the Gaza Strip launched after Palestinian militants captured a soldier in a cross-border raid on June 25.

"Fulfilling its pledge to liberate the (Arab) prisoners and detainees, the Islamic Resistance ... captured two Israeli soldiers at the border with occupied Palestine," the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizbollah said in a statement.

"The two captives were transferred to a safe place," it said, without stating what condition the soldiers were in.


A Lebanese political source said Hizbollah was willing to discuss swapping them for prisoners held in Israel. A Hizbollah spokesman refused comment. The group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called a news conference for 5 p.m. (1400 GMT).

In 2004 Hizbollah exchanged a kidnapped Israeli businesman and the bodies of three Israeli troops for more than 420 Arab prisoners. Israel now holds at least three Lebanese prisoners.

Hizbollah said it had destroyed an Israeli tank that had entered Lebanon. Al Jazeera television said a total of seven Israelis had been killed in Wednesday's border violence.

Olmert called a special cabinet session for 8 p.m. (1700 GMT) to discuss further military action.

"It is an act of war by the state of Lebanon against the state of Israel in its sovereign territory," he said.

"We are already responding with great strength ... The cabinet will convene tonight to decide on a further military response by the Israel Defence Forces," Olmert added.

The Lebanese cabinet was also due to hold an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT), political sources said.

Hizbollah, the only Lebanese faction to retain its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war, is also a political party with 14 members in the Beirut parliament and two cabinet ministers.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch called for the release of the Israeli soldiers, as did the European Union and the United Nations envoy to Lebanon.

But Syria said Israeli actions were to blame for Hizbollah's attack. "Occupation is what provokes the Palestinian and Lebanese people," Vice President Farouq al-Shara told reporters.


Hizbollah supporters set off fire crackers and distributed sweets in the streets of Beirut after the Islamist group issued its claim. Similar scenes were reported across Lebanon.

In Gaza, Israel killed nine members of one Palestinian family in an air strike on Wednesday that destroyed a three-storey residential building where top Hamas commanders were believed to be meeting.

The air strike was among a series of attacks that killed a total of 15 Palestinians as Israeli forces swept into central Gaza on Wednesday, broadening an offensive aimed at freeing a captured soldier and halting cross-border rocket fire.

The Israeli military said the air raid wounded Mohammad Deif, leader of the governing Hamas's armed wing. A spokesman for Hamas's Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades denied Deif was hurt.

Israel's Gaza offensive is aimed at freeing captured Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit and halting cross-border rocket fire.

Shalit's seizure by Hamas and allied fighters led Israel to launch its first ground attacks in Gaza since quitting the Strip last year. About 71 Palestinians have been killed so far.

Israel has rejected calls from Hamas for a prisoner swap for the 19-year-old tank gunner.
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