By Karamallah Daher
MARJAYOUN, Lebanon (Reuters) – Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed up to seven Israelis in violence on either side of the Lebanese border on Wednesday, further inflaming Middle East tensions.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the Hezbollah attacks as an “act of war” by Lebanon and promised a “very painful and far-reaching” response.
Two Lebanese civilians were killed and five people wounded in retaliatory Israeli air strikes after Hezbollah announced it had captured the Israelis.
Israeli ground forces crossed into Lebanon to search for the captured soldiers, Israeli Army Radio said. Hezbollah and the Lebanese authorities said there was no large-scale incursion.
Israeli troops have not struck deep into Lebanon since they withdrew from a southern border strip in 2000 after waging an 18-year war of attrition with Hezbollah’s Shi’ite fighters.
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 Hezbollah said in a statement.
“The two captives were transferred to a safe place,” it said, without stating what condition the soldiers were in.
A senior Lebanese political source said Hezbollah was willing to discuss exchanging prisoners held in Israel with the two Israeli soldiers captured on Wednesday. A Hezbollah spokesman refused to comment.
Hezbollah said later it had destroyed an Israeli tank that had entered Lebanon after its cross-border raid, inflicting casualties on its crew. Al Jazeera television said a total of seven Israelis had been killed in Wednesday’s border violence.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel held the Lebanese government responsible for the two soldiers’ fate because it let Hezbollah operate freely against Israel from its territory.
“Israel sees itself as being free to employ any means it deems fit, and the army has been instructed accordingly,” he said in a statement, hinting at a broad military response.
Hezbollah, 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.
Israel began calling up reserve troops, signaling a large-scale campaign to retrieve the two soldiers, Israel’s Channel 10 television said.
In Cairo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch condemned what he called a “dangerous escalation” and called for the release of the Israeli soldiers.
The Israeli medical rescue service ZAKA said three Israelis were killed and eight wounded in the Hezbollah attacks.
Hezbollah earlier fired dozens of Katyusha rockets and mortar bombs at Israeli border posts and a town. Israeli gunners hit back with artillery fire near four Lebanese border villages.
Israeli planes bombed three bridges in southern Lebanon, killing two Lebanese civilians and wounding four civilians and a soldier, Lebanese security sources said.
EMERGENCY CABINET MEETING
Olmert called a special cabinet session for 7 p.m. (1600 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 told a news conference.
“We are already responding with great strength … The cabinet will convene tonight to decide on a further military response by the Israel Defense Forces,” Olmert said, threatening “very painful and far-reaching” action.
Hezbollah 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 targeted Hamas guerrilla commanders in an air strike that killed nine Palestinians and destroyed a building where the militants were believed to be meeting.
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.
It coincided with an armoured sweep into the central Gaza Strip, part of an offensive aimed at freeing captured Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit and halting cross-border rocket fire.
His seizure by Hamas’s armed wing and allied fighters prompted Israel to launch its first ground attacks in Gaza since quitting the territory last year. More than 65 Palestinians have been killed so far in the Gaza operation.
Israel has rejected calls from Hamas for a prisoner swap for the 19-year-old tank gunner, whose seizure has triggered the worst fighting between Israelis and Palestinians since 2004.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Dan Williams at Kissufim and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem)