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Israeli Incursion Strains Truce With Hezbollah

Times Staff Writer

Israeli commandos dropped deep into Lebanon on Saturday, clashing with Hezbollah fighters in a raid here that left one Israeli soldier dead and put the first serious strain on the region’s 6-day-old cease-fire.

Israel and Lebanon swiftly accused each other of breaking the U.N. Security Council resolution that established the conditions for ending more than a month of cross-border bombing and rocket attacks that left hundreds of people dead.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called the raid a “naked violation” of the resolution and said he would complain to the United Nations.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement later Saturday saying he was “deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side of the cessation of hostilities.”

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Hezbollah fighters and residents of Boudai, a small agricultural village west of Baalbek, said the Israelis tried to pass themselves off as a Lebanese army patrol, and appeared bent on a clandestine mission, perhaps a kidnapping.

The raid began with low-flying aircraft sweeping over the area about 9 p.m., witnesses said. Hours later, two sport utility vehicles approached the village, where suspicious Hezbollah fighters had set up roadblocks.

The Israelis in the SUVs apparently flubbed a traditional Arabic greeting, fighters said. They were waved on to the next checkpoint, where Hezbollah fighters ambushed them, sending them fleeing into tobacco fields.

“When the Israelis came, everybody fought them,” said Faouzat Chamas, 51, a government agricultural worker who said he joined the skirmish.

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Apache helicopters fired from above, as larger helicopters evacuated the men and their vehicles, the fighters said.

The confrontation lasted about an hour, and left at least one Israeli soldier dead, they said.

The Israeli military said its special forces were trying to disrupt Hezbollah arms supply routes from Syria, contending that the Lebanese army was failing to prevent the militia from replenishing its weapons stockpiles.

“There was an attempt to bring in weaponry from Syria to Lebanon,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “The resolution calls for there to be Lebanese soldiers and international force there on the border crossings to prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, they’re not there at the moment. In the interim period, we can’t have a situation where Hezbollah is smuggling weapons and is rearming and regrouping.”

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But Israel produced no evidence of intercepted weapons. And the depth of the Israeli raid -- 60 miles inside Lebanon -- led to widespread speculation that the commandos might have been on a mission to rescue two Israeli soldiers seized by Hezbollah. Their capture in July was the spark for ferocious fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

The Israeli military acknowledged that one of its officers was killed and two others were wounded, one seriously. The military said that Israeli jets had to provide cover in order to extricate the soldiers and that at one point the planes dropped bombs to knock out a bridge to prevent more Hezbollah fighters from joining the battle.

Hezbollah officials said none of its fighters were killed or wounded.

“They dropped here and we sent them away,” said spokesman Hussein Naboulsi, who said the militant Shiite Muslim organization had not been surprised by the raid. “The world should not be so naive. Israel violates all agreements, all U.N. resolutions, all understandings.”

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The cease-fire agreement calls on Hezbollah to stop its attacks and Israel to halt “all offensive military operations.”

It also requires the Lebanese government to secure its borders to prevent any unauthorized weapons from entering the country. That task has fallen to a force of Lebanese soldiers that is to number 15,000. The soldiers are also supposed to be backed by a more robust force of U.N. peacekeepers, but the United Nations is having trouble finding countries willing to put soldiers in the region.

The Lebanese military began deploying its soldiers to towns south of the Litani River on Thursday. Their presence remains light in a region where the U.N. says 400,000 people have returned to shattered homes and villages littered with an estimated 13,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance. But the army is gradually extending its reach. On Saturday, Lebanese soldiers were seen driving jeeps through border towns such as Kfar Kila, where Israeli subdivisions and tanks were within sight.

Still, the Israeli army said it would continue cross-border raids until “proper monitoring bodies are established on the Lebanese borders.” It gave few details of Saturday’s raid, although it said the goals of the operation were “achieved in full.”

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In addition to the speculation that the raid might have been a rescue operation, others contended that Israel might have been trying to seize a high-ranking Hezbollah guerrilla or cleric to be used in a prisoner swap. They noted that Boudai is the hometown of Sheik Mohammed Yazbek, a senior Hezbollah official in the Bekaa Valley.

“They were trying a kidnapping,” said Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament from Baalbek. “People are very angry and upset.”

At least one independent analyst expressed skepticism of Israel’s claim that the raid was intended to intercept arms supplies. Arthur Hughes, former director-general of the Egypt-Israel Multinational Force and Observers, said the operation was so risky -- both for the Israeli soldiers and the country’s international standing -- that he found the government’s official explanation implausible.

“I would guess there was something of high value they were trying to accomplish,” Hughes said, suggesting that a rescue mission for the captive Israeli soldiers was more likely.

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“None of the objectives stated by the government have been achieved,” Hughes said. “They are under a lot of domestic pressure and they have a long tradition of not leaving anybody behind.”

He said a commando operation to interdict arms would probably be considered a violation of the cease-fire, but a rescue attempt “is a little bit more of a gray area.”

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to meet any Israeli attacks with force. Spokesman Naboulsi said he was unaware of what Nasrallah would order. But he suggested an immediate counterstrike was unlikely.

“Not right now,” he said, noting that Hezbollah was happy to see Israel going through a wrenching internal postmortem over “their failed attack on Lebanon.”

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But the Israeli raid provoked anger in the Lebanese government, which is struggling to assert its nationalist credentials to counter Hezbollah’s emergence as a dynamic force for dealing what is seen here as a sharp blow to Israeli military pride.

Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr told reporters in Beirut that he would consider halting the Lebanese army’s deployment into the south if the U.N. did not press Israel over the raid.

Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Kfar Kila, Henry Chu in Jerusalem and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.


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