Israel authorizes 'severe' response to kidnappings
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; Posted: 5:40 p.m. EDT (21:40 GMT)
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's Cabinet has authorized a "severe and harsh" response to the capture Wednesday of two soldiers by Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas and said Lebanon is responsible for their safe release, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said.
The Israeli soldiers were abducted during a cross-border raid by Hezbollah fighters. Three Israeli soldiers also were killed in raid.
In response, Israeli artillery and airstrikes pounded Hezbollah installations throughout the day.
Four more soldiers were killed later as Israeli troops moved into southern Lebanon, and a fifth died as soldiers ran to their aid, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
A government official told CNN that Israel would take gradual steps to prevent an escalation in fighting and to bring about the release of the soldiers. Israel will pressure the Lebanese government to push back Hezbollah from Lebanon's border with Israel, the official said.
Israel launches airstrikes
The Israeli military said its land, air and naval forces had hit at least eight Hezbollah bases and five bridges in southern Lebanon.
In a claim broadcast on Hezbollah's television channel, Hezbollah said it had "destroyed" an Israeli tank crossing into the region.
Israel warned it would use the "utmost power" to retrieve the soldiers.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told reporters that "direct negotiations" would be the only way to gain the return of the soldiers and that their capture was "our natural, only and logical right."
He demanded the soldiers be swapped for "our prisoners" held by Israel. A demand for Israel to release Palestinians from its jails has been made by Palestinian militants who captured another Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, last month. (Watch gunfire and smoke as Israeli troops enter southern Lebanon -- 2:55)
Israel has exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah before, most recently in 2004. But this time, Israeli leaders have said there will be no deals.
Nasrallah said the two soldiers taken Wednesday had been moved to "a faraway place."
Olmert told reporters that the killings and abductions were "not a terror attack but an operation of a sovereign state without any reason or provocation."
He said the Hezbollah attacks were an "act of war" and blamed the Lebanese government, which he said would be held responsible.
Hezbollah, a militant group, is based in Lebanon and holds seats in the country's government.
There have been only sporadic border clashes since Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation.
The IDF urged Israelis in northern villages to take shelter as the violence escalated. Four Israeli civilians and six soldiers have been wounded in the fighting so far, the IDF reported.
Thunder and smoke
The valleys along the Israeli-Lebanese border thundered with artillery fire and clouds of blue-gray smoke could be seen rising above Lebanese positions.
Israeli forces, witnesses said, were bombing roads, bridges and guerrilla positions in southern Lebanon.
Israeli forces are also responding to rockets fired by Hezbollah into northern Israel, according to the IDF.
Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the chief of Israel's Northern Command, told reporters that Israel had "expanded and comprehensive plans" to battle Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"This affair is between Israel and the state of Lebanon," he said. "Where to attack? Once it is inside Lebanon, everything is legitimate -- not just southern Lebanon, not just the line of Hezbollah posts."
Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria and Iran
Hezbollah is designated a terrorist group by the United States and Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned Hezbollah for its action and singled out Syria, which she said has a "special responsibility to use its influence to support a positive outcome."
State Department officials say that there is little the Lebanese government can do to control Hezbollah.
While the United States sees Lebanon's government as an important go-between with Hezbollah, State Department officials say the Lebanese government does not have the capacity to expand its authority into the south, where Hezbollah has control.
These officials said the United States is holding Syria and Iran responsible for support of Hezbollah.
'We will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years'
IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz told Israeli Channel 10, "If the soldiers are not returned we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years."
It is the latest skirmish between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, whose forces traded cross-border fire in late May following the assassination of an Islamic Jihad official in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon.
Mahmoud Majzoub, also known as Abu Hamza, was killed in a car bombing, which Islamic Jihad blamed on Israel. Israel denied any involvement in the incident.
Israel set up a security buffer zone in southern Lebanon from 1978 until 2000.CNN's Elise Labott contributed to