Israel targets 'Hizbollah leadership bunker'

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Israeli warplanes dropped 23 tons of bombs on a bunker in south Beirut where the army believed senior Hizbollah leaders were hiding, a senior army official said today. The guerrilla group denied the site was a bunker or that its leadership had been hurt.

The jet fighters dropped the tons of explosives on the bunker last night, said Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Harel, the head of the army's planning division. The army, he said, had pinpointed intelligence information that Hizbollah's top brass were hiding in the bunker, possibly even the group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

"Everyday that passes allows us to collect more and more intelligence, more and more targets, and increase our ability to hit Hizbollah on all its levels, and this is what happened overnight in Beirut," Harel told Israel's Army Radio.

Harel noted that Nasrallah has not been heard from since he gave a televised address on Sunday, but could not say for sure if he or his top commanders had been hurt in the aerial attack. "I can say that the hits were exact. In the coming hours we will know what really happened," Harel said.

Hizbollah said the site of the attack, in the Bourj al-Barajneh neighbourhood in southern Beirut, was actually a mosque under construction.

"No Hizbollah leaders or elements were killed in the strike," the group said in a statement issued shortly after the attack. "The truth is that the building targeted by the enemy warplanes with 23 tons of explosives is just a building under construction to be a mosque for prayers," said the statement, issued on the group's Al-Manar TV and faxed to The Associated Press. "It seems that the enemy wants to cover up its military and security failures with lies and claims of imaginary achievements."

The Israeli-Hizbollah fighting erupted on July 12 after the guerrilla group launched a cross-border attack on an Israeli military patrol, killing eight soldiers and capturing two. About 300 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and 29 Israelis have been killed in the fighting.

Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, denied Hizbollah's statement that the site hit was a mosque.

"I can assure you that we know exactly what we hit. ... This was no religious site. This was indeed the headquarters of the Hizbollah leadership," he told CNN.

Hizbollah has a headquarters compound in Bourj al-Barajneh that is off limits to the Lebanese police and army, so security officials could not confirm the strike. Hizbollah media made no immediate mention of any attack.

Israel has said that one of the objects of its offensive in Lebanon is to eliminate Hizbollah leaders. Harel confirmed today that Israel would still try to strike the group's leadership.

"We went to this war with the understanding that at the end of the operation we would have to seriously decrease the strength of Hizbollah, of the entire organisation, to allow the Lebanese government to take control of the southern part of the country, to cancel the situation in which there is a country in a country and to create the conditions to bring home the kidnapped soldiers," Harel said.