BEIRUT,(Reuters) – Israel blockaded Lebanese ports and struck Beirut airport and two military airbases on Thursday, expanding reprisals that have killed 53 civilians in Lebanon since Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers a day earlier.
Hizbollah guerrillas rained at least 70 rockets onto northern Israel in their heaviest bombardment in a decade. A woman was killed and 43 people were wounded, Israeli medics said. They had said a second woman died of her wounds, but the hospital said she remained in critical condition.
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 try to retrieve a captured soldier and halt Palestinian rocket fire.
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.”
Sustained air strikes in south Lebanon killed over 50 civilians and wounded 110 people, security sources said. Ten family members were killed in Dweir village and seven family members died in Baflay. A Lebanese soldier was also killed.
Information Minister Ghazi al-Aridi said after an emergency cabinet meeting that Lebanon wanted a comprehensive ceasefire and an end to “this open-ended aggression” by Israel.
Israeli aircraft bombed runways at Beirut’s international airport, forcing flights to divert to Cyprus. Later in the day Israeli aircraft also attacked two military airbases.
A senior Israeli officer said the air and sea blockade would be maintained throughout what he said would be a prolonged offensive against Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Israeli naval vessels enforcing the siege turned away three ships carrying fuel to Beirut, a shipping source said.
Three of Hizbollah’s al-Manar television facilities in Beirut and elsewhere came under fire from Israeli helicopters. One person was reported killed and 10 wounded.
Israeli forces also plan to strike the main Beirut-Damascus highway, according to an Israeli Defence Ministry briefing.
Israel has rejected Hizbollah demands that it release Arab prisoners in exchange for the captive soldiers, named by the Israeli army as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26, but says it fears the soldiers could be spirited to Iran.
“Those concerns have a basis,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
Israeli media said the army had warned Lebanon to evacuate all residents from a southern Beirut neighbourhood where it believes Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah lives.
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 Shi’ites.
Hizbollah threatened to bombard Israel’s third-largest city of Haifa if Beirut or its southern suburbs were attacked.
The U.S. military ordered one of its ships out of Haifa in what a Navy statement said was a precaution. The fleet ocean tug USNS Apache had been on an exercise with the Israeli navy.
The European Union and Russia criticised Israel’s strikes in Lebanon as a dangerous escalation of the Middle East conflict.
Arab foreign ministers agreed to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday to discuss Israeli attacks in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, the Arab League said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is sending a three-person team to the Middle East to try to defuse the crisis.
The violence rattled financial markets in Israel and Lebanon with investors worried it might worsen, or spread to Syria.
The Israeli shekel weakened by 1.4 percent and shares lost four percent on the day.
The Lebanese pound came under pressure. Beirut stocks slumped in panic selling, with Lebanon’s biggest company Solidere shedding 15 percent, the maximum permitted.
The Israeli assault has widened divisions in Lebanon between those who praise Hizbollah’s defiance of Israel and those angered by the high price it inflicts on the Lebanese.