BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP – The militant group Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers during clashes Wednesday across the border in southern Lebanon, prompting a swift reaction from Israel, which sent ground forces into its neighbor to search for them.
The forces were trying to keep the soldiers’ captors from moving them deeper into Lebanon, Israeli government officials said on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli military would not confirm the report.
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.”
The new captures came as Israel continued its two-week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip to try to win the release of another Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas-linked Palestinian militants during a raid across the Israel-Gaza border last month.
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman in Lebanon, said Hezbollah’s seizure of the two soldiers Wednesday strengthens Hamas’ position, and demanded Israel free all Arab prisoners to secure their release.
“We have proven to this enemy (Israel) that the one option is the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab captives. All captives, without exception,” Hamdan told Al-Jazeera television.
“What happened has strengthened the issue of the captives, and the enemy will submit to our choice, which is the exchange of the captives in return for the release of the soldiers,” he said.
The comments appeared to reflect a toughening of Hamas’ stance in the abduction of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in the cross-border raid outside Gaza. Previously, Hamas had demanded the freeing of some Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit’s release.
Hamdan did not say whether Hamas had consulted with Hezbollah over Wednesday’s seizure of the two soldiers at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. But he said there may be subsequent “coordination and an understanding” between the two groups.