Hizbollah responds to Israeli raid with barrage of rockets

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The Independent Online

Hizbollah fired more rockets yesterday than at any time in the 22-day war as Israel claimed its raid on an empty Baalbek hospital believed to hold Hizbollah fighters had demonstrated its ground forces could "operate in all parts of Lebanon if needed".

The Israel Defence Forces said its deepest raid into Lebanon in this conflict was by a commando unit, landed overnight by helicopters. Air strikes in the area of the city during the raid were said by Lebanese officials to have left 19 dead, including four children.

Despite Hizbollah claims that those killed and captured in the raid were mainly civilians, the Israel chief of staff, Dan Halutz, said that his forces had killed at least 10 "Hizbollah terrorists", and five captured men were also Hizbollah members. Lebanese security officials said the men were "low-level" operatives in the guerrilla organisation.

There are now an estimated 8,000 Israeli troops are in southern Lebanon, backed by heavy artillery and air strikes. The Israelis said that Hizbollah had launched a record total of 213 rockets into Israel.

Three Israeli paratroopers were wounded in reportedly heavy fighting around the border village of Aita al-Shaab last night, hours after three other soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in heavy exchanges of fire with Hizbollah guerrillas in Mahabib, in the eastern border sector.

One 52-year old Israeli man was killed by a Katyusha rocket as he rode his bicycle in Kibbutz Sa'ar, close to the north-eastern Israeli town of Nahariya.

In the face of persistent reports from Lebanon that the special forces involved in the Baalbek raid were hoping to capture Mohammed Yazbek, identified as a member of the Hizbollah high council, Lt-General Halutz insisted that the forces had not been hunting for "someone specific".

He added: "The goal of the operation shows that we can operate in all the areas of Lebanon if needed."

Despite the rocket attacks, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, insisted in interviews with news agencies that Hizbollah's infrastructure had been "entirely destroyed" and said Israel would continue to fight in Lebanon until a proposed multinational force arrives in the south of the country to implement UN resolutions prescribing the disarmament of Hizbollah.

General Halutz, who told reporters that more than 300 Hizbollah fighters had been killed during the conflict as a whole, said the full results of the Baalbek operation were not yet clear because the raiders had gathered " a lot of intelligence material we need to analyse". He added: " I have no doubt at the end of the day we will find the operation very successful."

Col Nitzan Alon, the commander of the operation, told Israeli television that the object of the raid was to strike at a rear command base operated by Hizbollah.

It is said to have involved 200 troops, half of whom entered the hospital and half raided houses in the city looking for Hizbollah guerrillas. Th colonel said the commandos, who had returned unharmed, had taken away computers for analysis. The chief of staff who, as a former air force commander has been criticised by some analysts for over-reliance on air power, made it clear he envisaged a resumption of the repeated and controversial air raids on the southern suburbs of Beirut.

But he said that would be a matter for a decision by ministers, which he anticipated would take place in the next day or two.

While the army has significantly widened its ground offensive in southern Lebanon, General Halutz was dismissive of calls for an immediate and massive ground invasion of Lebanon. In an apparent warning against repeating the ground operations in Bint Jbeil, where nine soldiers and officers were killed in one day last week, he said the use of a large force had been tried "and we saw how it ended. This is the answer to all those who want to enter a very large number of forces onto the ground immediately".

In a declaration which left it to Israeli politicians to decide when to end the war, the chief of staff said that completion of the current military operation would take more than "days" and that Hizbollah had continued to possess "weapons and terrorists".

He said Israeli forces would stay in Lebanon "as long as we need to stay there until the point we are told to leave. Then we will pack up our things and leave".

General Halutz held his news conference at a forward brigade headquarters outside Kyriat Shimona against the background noise of repeated artillery fire into southern Lebanon. On the nearby hillsides over the town, smoke continued to rise from the brushfires ignited by the barrage of Katyusha strikes.

Across the border, plumes of smoke hovered where artillery shells had landed in two villages close to the border where no ground activity, civilian, Hizbollah or Israeli military could be seen.

On a hillside close to the base of Kibbutz Misgav Am, where soldiers and kibbutz security personnel warned journalists of possible anti-tank missile attacks on vehicles, a huge column of smoke rose after an aircraft flew over and unleashed a strike against a believed Hizbollah outpost between the kibbutz and the Lebanese village of Addeiseh near where fighting continued yesterday.

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