Hezbollah fighters battled Israeli commandos who landed near the militants’ stronghold deep inside Lebanon early Saturday, killing one soldier, in the first large-scale violation of the U.N.-brokered cease-fire between the sides.
Hezbollah said its guerrillas foiled the raid after a gunbattle, and the Israeli army said one soldier was killed and two were wounded, one seriously.
Witnesses said Israeli missiles destroyed a bridge during the raid — the first major violation of the U.N.-imposed cease-fire that took effect Monday following 34 days of fighting.
The Israeli army said the special forces operation aimed “to prevent and interfere with terror activity against Israel, especially the smuggling of arms from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah.” It said the commando team completed its mission.
The army said such operations would be carried out until “an effective monitoring unit” of Lebanese or multinational troops was in place.
“If the Syrians and Iran continue to arm Hezbollah in violation of the (U.N. cease-fire) resolution, Israel is entitled to act to defend the principle of the arms embargo,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Hezbollah TV and Lebanese security officials said Israeli helicopters dropped off a commando team outside the village of Boudai west of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to the media, said the Israelis apparently were seeking a guerrilla target in a nearby school but had no other details. The officials also reported heavy overflights of Israeli jets.
Lebanon’s foreign minister said he immediately informed a visiting U.N. delegation of Israel’s violation.
Such a bold operation risked scuttling the fragile cease-fire and suggested Israel was going after a major target near Baalbek — perhaps to rescue two Israeli soldiers snatched by Hezbollah on July 12, or to try to capture a senior guerrilla official to trade for the soldiers.
Hezbollah has said it wants to exchange the two soldiers for Arab prisoners, but the U.N. cease-fire resolution demands Hezbollah unconditionally release the soldiers.
Local media said Sheik Mohammed Yazbeck, a senior Hezbollah official in the Bekaa and a member of the Shura council of the group, may have been the target. Yazbeck is a native of Boudai.
Israeli troops have killed several guerrillas who Israel said threatened its troops in south Lebanon since the cease-fire, and warplanes have flown over the country. But the cease-fire allows military action in self-defense, and the commando raid was by far the most serious incident since Monday.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said Lebanese authorities found blood at the scene of the raid, indicating Israeli casualties. Salloukh, speaking to reporters after meeting with U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Beirut, said he informed the U.N. team of the Israeli action in Baalbek and said the U.N. team would raise the issue with Israeli authorities.
“If Israel continues its violations, it is the responsibility of the (U.N.) Security Council to take action and ask Israel to stop these violations,” he said.
A provincial government official, Bekaa Valley Gov. Antoine Suleiman, confirmed the Israeli troop landing. He told the privately owned Voice of Lebanon radio station that the landing party brought with it two vehicles that were later withdrawn after clashes.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the Israeli commando force landed before dawn and was driving into Boudai when it was intercepted by guerrillas who forced it to retreat under the cover of warplanes, which staged mock raids.
Hezbollah officials on the scene said overflights from Israeli jet fighters drowned the clatter of helicopters as they flew into the foothills of the central Lebanese mountains, dropping commandos and two vehicles they used to drive into the village when the Hezbollah fighters intercepted them in a field.
The commandos identified themselves as the Lebanese army, but the guerrillas grew suspicious and gunfire erupted, the officials said.
Israeli helicopters fired missiles as the commandos withdrew and flew out of the area an hour later, they said.
Witnesses saw bandages and syringes at the site. The also saw a destroyed bridge about 500 yards from the area where the landing took place, after missiles were fired by Israeli aircraft.
Overflights were reported Friday night in the same area.
Israel said late Friday its warplanes have not attacked Lebanon since the cease-fire took effect.
Baalbek is the birthplace of the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah. The area in the eastern Bekaa Valley, 60 miles north of the Israeli border, is a major guerrilla stronghold.
The U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution calls for an immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations.
In letters to Lebanese and Israeli leaders, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned the two countries against occupying additional territory and told them to refrain from responding to any attacks “except where clearly required in immediate self-defense.”
Annan also told Israel and Lebanon that once the cessation of hostilities took effect there must be no firing from the ground, sea or air into the other side’s territory or at its forces.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press