Israel widens bombing campaign as Lebanese militia groups retaliate

Israeli forces blockaded Lebanese ports and bombed runways at Beirut airport yesterday in a series of fierce reprisal attacks that Lebanese officials say have killed 55 civilians.

Tthe biggest military operation since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago came in response to a raid by Hizbollah on Wednesday in which two soldiers were seized while on patrol on the Israeli side of the border. The most serious casualties were caused by a series of air raids on south Lebanon that Lebanese security officials say killed 55 people and wounded 110. Sources said 10 members of a single family were killed in Dweir village and seven from another family were killed in Baflay.

The Israeli military said Hizbollah guerrillas fired more than 100 Katyusha rockets in retaliation at towns and villages across the north of Israel, killing two women in what was the most serious barrage since the mid-1990s. One woman was killed in Nahariya and another woman died from her wounds in Safed.

The guerrilla group appeared last night to have dramatically exceeded the rocket's previous range by launching two at the coastal city of Haifa. Another landed in the suburbs. Danny Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to the US, said the attack was a "major, major, escalation" but Hizbollah's initial reaction was to deny its rockets had been fired at Haifa.

Israeli planes late last night launched a second attack on Beirut's airport, setting fuel tanks ablaze, and leafleted residents in the crowded southern suburbs of Beirut, warning them to stay away from Hizbollah sites in an apparent prelude to further air raids. Israeli jets also bombed the highway linking Beirut with the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Iranian PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad responded by warning Israel against an attack on Syria. "If the Zionist regime commits another stupid move and attacks Syria, this will be considered like attacking the whole Islamic world and this regime will receive a very fierce response," he said.

Earlier, Israeli forces attacked two military bases and hinted at a ground offensive, the Lebanese Information Minister, Ghazi al-Aridi, said that Lebanon wanted a comprehensive ceasefire and an end to "this open-ended aggression" by Israel.

Israeli helicopters also fired on three facilities of the Hizbollah-operated al-Manar television network. One person was reported killed and 10 wounded.

The US vetoed a UN resolution last night that demanded Israel halt its military offensive in Gaza ­ the first UN Security Council veto in almost two years.Ten of the 15 countries voted in favour; while Britain, Denmark, Slovakia and Peru abstained.

President George Bush voiced concern about the fate of Lebanon's fragile government, which is no longer dominated by Syria, but said: "Israel has the right to defend herself." Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said Israel should respond to the "inexcusable provocation" in a "measured and proportionate" way.

The seized Israeli soldiers were named as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, of Nahariya, and Eldad Regev, 26, of Kiryat Motzkin. The deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry, Gideon Meir, said Israel would not negotiate "with any organisation that kidnaps soldiers".

The operation in Lebanon has opened a second front a fortnight after Israeli troops staged their first military operations inside Gaza since withdrawing from the Strip last summer. After 23 Palestinians were killed in attacks on Wednesday, Israel's air force bombed the Hamas-controlled Foreign Ministry overnight. The operation in Gaza was launched with the stated aim of freeing an abducted 19-year-old army corporal, Gilad Shalit, and stopping Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza.

Israel said it was hitting targets that were of assistance to Hizbollah and which had been operating without interference from the Lebanese government.

The main players as Israel fights on two fronts

Ehud Olmert

Four months after his election victory promising a West Bank withdrawal and greater security, Prime Minister Olmert is fighting on two fronts.

Amir Peretz

Leader of Israel's Labour party, he has had his pacifist beliefs sorely tested since becoming defence minister in March. Faces international pressure to minimise civilian casualties.

Bashar Assad

The Syrian President will feel increasing international pressure to rein in his Hizbollah and Hamas allies. The US holds Syria responsible for the crisis.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah

Hizbollah's leader, believed to be in southern Beirut, threatened further rocket attacks if Israeli air strikes continue, and said the two soldiers will be freed only in an exchange.

Khaled Mashal

The Hamas political leader is in hiding in Damascus. Has said Hamas will only release the Israeli soldier held hostage in Gaza in exchange for prisoners.

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