Egypt, Hariri hold emergency talks in bid to end crisis
BEIRUT: Israel struck Beirut airport and blockaded Lebanese ports on Thursday, expanding reprisals that have killed 52 civilians in Lebanon since Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight a day earlier. The Lebanese Shiite Muslim group retaliated by raining rockets onto towns in northern Israel. A woman was killed and 29 people were wounded, including children, in Nahariya, Israeli medics said. Eleven people were wounded in the northern town of Safed. The violence was the fiercest since 1996 when Israeli troops still occupied part of south Lebanon. It coincided with a major Israeli offensive into the Gaza Strip to retrieve a captured soldier and halt Palestinian rocket fire.
Saad Hariri, leader of the anti-Syrian majority in Lebanon, went into emergency talks with President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday to discuss the flare-up between Israel and Lebanon, an official told AFP. Hariri made a surprise stopover in Egypt after visiting China and immediately went into a meeting with Mubarak at the Burg Al-Arab resort near Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. Israel has launched a major military offensive against Lebanon in retaliation for an attack on Wednesday by the Shiite Hezbollah militia in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and a total of eight others killed. The Jewish state has also clamped a blockade on its northern neighbor after bombing Beirut airport. The Lebanese government has asked for international help in the face of the Israeli assault and insisted that it was not responsible for the acts of Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran and Syria. Mubarak has acted as a mediator since a new Middle East crisis erupted nearly three weeks ago following the capture of another Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit was dispatched to Damascus on Wednesday and handed a message from Mubarak to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. U.S. President George W. Bush voiced concern about the fate of Lebanon s anti-Syrian government, but offered no direct criticism of the punishment Israel is meting out. Israel has the right to defend herself, he said in Germany. Secondly, whatever Israel does should not weaken the … government in Lebanon. Despite the flare-up in Lebanon, Israel signaled no let-up in its Gaza assault, mounting an air strike that destroyed the office of Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. At least 24 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Wednesday. Israeli aircraft bombed runways at Beirut s international airport, forcing flights to divert to Cyprus. An Israeli military spokesman announced a naval blockade of Lebanese ports. Israeli vessels were visible from the shore. A Beirut port official said ships had docked early in the day, but that the Israelis had prevented some from leaving. A senior Israeli officer told Reuters the air and sea blockade would be maintained throughout what he said would be a prolonged offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. We should not consider this a matter of days, said Brigadier-General Amir Eshel, deputy chief of air force staff. This blockade will last as long as the conflict goes on. Sustained air strikes in south Lebanon killed at least 50 civilians, including more than 15 children, and wounded 100 people, security sources said. Ten members of a family were killed in Dweir village and seven family members died in Baflay. A Lebanese army soldier was also killed. Israeli air strikes on Wednesday killed two civilians and a Hezbollah fighter. Two dozen bridges have been hit, with most heavily damaged. Israeli media said the army had warned Lebanon to evacuate all residents from a southern Beirut neighborhood where it believes Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah lives. The army had no comment on whether it would try to kill Nasrallah, but Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israel Radio: Anyone who acts against the state of Israel … is a target. There was no confirmation from the Lebanese authorities that they had received any warning from Israel to evacuate the area, home to hundreds of thousands of mostly impoverished Shiites. Hezbollah threatened to bombard Israel s third-largest city of Haifa if Beirut or its southern suburbs were attacked. France criticized Israel s campaign, including the Beirut airport attack, as a disproportionate act of war. Russia condemned Israel s actions in Lebanon and Gaza in similar terms. Hezbollah, which said it seized the Israeli soldiers to win freedom for Arab prisoners in Israel, said it had fired 60 rockets at Nahariya in response to the massacres of civilians in the south and assaults on infrastructure. The violence rattled financial markets in Israel and Lebanon with investors worried that it might worsen, or spread to Syria. The Israeli shekel lost as much as two percent against the dollar and shares lost four percent in early trade. The Lebanese pound came under pressure. Beirut stocks slumped in panic selling, with Lebanon s biggest company Solidere shedding 15 percent, the maximum permitted. Two hours after the airport raid, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at the headquarters of Hezbollah s Al-Manar TV in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, wounding six people. Israeli aircraft attacked an Al-Manar relay tower in eastern Lebanon, killing one person and wounding four, witnesses said. Israel had promised a very painful response after Hizbollah seized two soldiers and killed eight on Wednesday. The Israeli assault will increase domestic pressure on Hezbollah, which has refused to disarm in line with a 2004 U.N. resolution, and add to international calls on the Lebanese government, led by an anti-Syrian coalition, to act. Agencies