BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid Wednesday, triggering an Israeli assault with warplanes, tanks and gunboats striking southern Lebanon as Israeli troops crossed the frontier to hunt for the captives.
Two Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli airstrikes on a bridge in the south, Lebanese security officials said.
The pan-Arab satellite TV al-Arabiya station said that at least seven Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, and that several more were wounded.
The Israeli army confirmed casualties among the soldiers, but did not comment the reports of possible deaths. Israeli troops crossed into a southwestern sector of Lebanon, across the border from where the soldiers were seized, trying to keep their captors from moving them deeper into Lebanon, Israeli government security officials said. Hezbollah said it destroyed an Israeli tank as it tried to cross the frontier.
Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an emergency Cabinet meeting and said Lebanese guerrillas would pay a “heavy price” for Wednesday’s attacks.
“These are difficult days for the state of Israel and its citizens,” Olmert said. “There are people … who are trying to test our resolve. They will fail and they will pay a heavy price for their actions.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welsh, on a visit to Cairo, Egypt, said the capture of the two Israeli soldiers was “a very dangerous escalation” that “puts at risk all the effort thats being put forth by many to find a solution to the current situation.”
The capture of the two Israeli soldiers took place amid a bloody standoff between Israel and the Palestinians’ Hamas-led government after Hamas-linked fighters captured another Israeli soldier, 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid outside the Gaza Strip on June 25.
It was not known whether Hezbollah planned Wednesday’s operation to snatch the two Israelis in coordination with Hamas. But one Hamas leader suggested the two groups would cooperate over their demands for a prisoner swap.
“We have proven to this enemy (Israel) that the one option is the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab captives. All captives, without exception,” Osama Hamdan, Hamas’ spokesman in Lebanon, told Al-Jazeera television.
The military arm of the Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah said in a statement that its fighters captured two Israeli soldiers “on the border with occupied Palestine, fulfilling the promise to liberate its prisoners” held by Israel. In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, the group said “the prisoners have been moved to a safe area.”
Israel’s Defense Ministry confirmed Israeli soldiers were captured, saying the Lebanese government was responsibile for their safety. The military, meanwhile, ordered residents of Israeli towns along the northern border to seek cover in underground bomb shelters.
Jubilant residents of south Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah, fired their guns in the air and set off firecrackers for more than an hour after the capture of the Israeli soldiers was announced.
In the main Palestinian refugee camp of Ein el-Hilweh in Sidon, southern Lebanon, Palestinians set fireworks.
Israeli aircraft struck roads, bridges and Hezbollah guerrilla positions in southern Lebanon, apparently aiming to prevent guerrillas from moving the captured soldiers deeper into the country, Lebanese security officials said. Israeli warplanes struck two bridges over the Litani River deep in southern Lebanon, killing two civilians on the main north-south highway between the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, the officials said.
Israeli jets flew over Sidon and nearby areas and Lebanese army anti-aircraft opened fire at them, the officials said on conditions of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The new capture of the soldiers opens a second front for Israel even during its standoff with Hamas in Gaza. An Israeli offensive in Gaza since the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on June 25 has killed at least 60 Palestinians, including nine civilians killed when Israel dropped a quarter ton bomb on a house in Gaza City on Wednesday.
Hamas-linked militants have demanded the release of at least some of the estimated 9,000 prisoners held by Israel in exchange for Shalit’s freedom. But Hamdan’s comments suggested the group may toughen its stance after Hezbollah’s grab of two more soldiers. He said there may be subsequent “coordination and an understanding” between the two groups, suggesting they might coordinate their demands.
Israel has carried out several prisoner swaps with Hezbollah in the past to obtain freedom for captures Israelis. These include a January 2004 swap in which an Israeli civilian and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers were exchanged for 436 Arab prisoners and the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters. In 1985, three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon in 1982 were traded for 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.