Hezbollah cripples Israeli missile ship with unmanned aircraft
Leader threatens "open war" with Israel
Israeli soldiers stand on the bridge of the Israeli Navy ship Keshet as it patrols off the southern Lebanese coast next to the Lebanese town of Necore, in Lebanese territorial waters, Friday. Israel tightened its seal on Lebanon, blasting its air and road links to the outside world and bringing its offensive to the capital for the first time Friday in order to punish Hezbollah, and with it, the country, for the capture of two Israeli soldiers.
Photograph by : AP Photo/Baz Ratner
Canadian Press, Associated Press
Published: Friday, July 14, 2006 Article tools
BEIRUT -- Hezbollah rammed an Israeli missile ship with an unmanned aircraft rigged with explosives Friday, setting it ablaze after Israeli planes smashed Lebanon's links to the world one by one and destroyed the headquarters of the Islamic guerrilla group's leader.
The attack on the ship off Beirut's Mediterranean coast was the most dramatic incident on a violent day in the conflict that erupted suddenly Wednesday and appeared to be out of control, despite pleas from world leaders for restraint on both sides.
Israel again bombarded Lebanon's airport and main roads in the most intensive offensive against the country in 24 years. For the first time, it struck the crowded Shiite Muslim neighbourhood of South Beirut around Hezbollah's headquarters, toppling overpasses and sheering facades off apartment buildings. Concrete from balconies smashed into parked cars and car alarms set off by the blasts blared for hours.
The toll in three days of clashes rose to 73 killed in Lebanon and at least 12 Israelis, as international alarm grew over the fighting and oil prices rose to above $78 US a barrel. The UN Security Council held an emergency session on the violence, and Lebanon accused Israel of launching "a widespread barbaric aggression.''
In addition to the fighting in Lebanon, Israel pressed ahead with its offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas, striking the Palestinian Economy Ministry offices early Saturday.
The ramming of the Israeli ship indicated Hezbollah has added a new weapon to the arsenal of rockets and mortars it has used against Israel. The Israeli army said the ship suffered severe damage and was on fire hours later as it headed home. There were no details on the ship's crew, though Al-Jazeera TV said the Israeli military was searching for four missing sailors.
"You wanted an open war and we are ready for an open war,'' Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a taped statement.
He threatened to strike even deeper into Israel with rockets.
Despite fears the assault could bring down the western-backed, anti-Syrian government of Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the campaign would continue until Hezbollah guerrillas, who are backed by Syria and Iran, lose their near-control of southern Lebanon bordering Israel.
Olmert agreed in a phone call with UN chief Kofi Annan to allow UN mediation for a ceasefire -- but only if the terms include the disarming of Hezbollah and the return of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by the Muslim guerrillas Wednesday triggered the fighting.
Hezbollah rained dozens of rockets on towns in northern Israel. One rocket hit a home in Meron, killing a woman and her grandson. Some 220,000 people in northern towns hunkered down in bomb shelters.
Nasrallah was not hurt after the Israeli missiles demolished his headquarters among two buildings in Beirut's southern neighbourhoods, the militant group said. Three people died in the air strikes.
"If they kill us all, we will still not give them back the prisoners,'' said one resident, Nasser Ali Nasser, as palls of smoke rose from fuel depots hit farther south.
"We have nothing left to lose except our dignity. We sacrifice ourselves for Sheik Nasrallah,'' he said.
President George W. Bush, who has backed Israel's right to defend itself, spoke by phone with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora from a G8 summit in Russia and "reiterated his position'' the Israeli attacks should limit any impact on civilians, White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
But the promise fell short of the Lebanese leader's request for pressure for a ceasefire.
Israel's campaign appeared to have a two-pronged goal. One was to batter Hezbollah and end its near control of the south on Israel's borders.
"We know it's going to be a long and continuous campaign and operation, but it's very clear. We need to put Hezbollah out of business,'' Brig.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan said.
Israel's army chief, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, said Hezbollah has rockets that can reach as far as 70 kilometres or more, which would bring more Israeli cities, such as Hadera, within range.
The other goal is to seal off Lebanon by repeatedly striking its airport and main roads -- including the coastal highway from north to south and the Beirut-Damascus highway, Lebanon's main land link to the outside world. At the same time, Israel is gradually escalating the damage to the country's infrastructure, painstakingly rebuilt since the civil war ended in 1990.
Israel holds Lebanon responsible for the capture of its two soldiers in a surprise Hezbollah raid; the Lebanese government insists it had nothing to do with the attack. However, Israel wants it to rein in the guerrillas, a move Lebanon has long resisted.
Throughout the morning, Israeli fighter-bombers pounded runways at Beirut's airport for a second day, apparently trying to ensure its closure after the Lebanese national carrier, Middle East Airlines, managed to evacuate its last five planes to Jordan. One bomb hit close to the terminal building.
Civilian casualties were mounting faster than during Israel's last major offensive in Lebanon, in 1996, an assault also sparked by Hezbollah attacks. In that campaign, 165 people were killed over 17 days, including 100 in the shelling of a UN base.
"We are on the right and we shall avenge every attack we endure,'' said Fadi Haidar, a Lebanese-American who swept up the shattered glass outside his store in South Beirut.
"I have huge debts and now my store is damaged...But as time goes by, they will all realize that Sayyed Nasrallah is right and is working in the interest of Muslims.''
There was some resentment that Hezbollah had dragged the Lebanese into another bloody fight with Israel.
"As long as Hezbollah has its weapons and acts according to its leader's whims, there is pretext for Israel to keep on destroying Lebanon,'' said Ibrahim al-Hajj, a Christian shop owner in the southern village Qleia.
Foreign Affairs spokesperson Amber Dickey said in Ottawa about 10,000 Canadians in Lebanon are registered with the embassy in Beirut.
The department is urging them to stay indoors until further notice.
© The Canadian Press, Associated Press 2006