BEIRUT, Lebanon, (AP) – Israeli commandos raided a Hezbollah stronghold deep inside Lebanon Saturday, sparking a fierce clash with militants that left one Israeli soldier dead. Lebanon called the raid a “flagrant violation” of the U.N.-brokered cease-fire, while Israel said it was aimed at disrupting arms smuggling from Iran and Syria.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr threatened to halt the army’s deployment in south Lebanon if the United Nations does not take up the issue of the raid. A stop to the deployment would deeply damage efforts to move in an international force to strengthen the cease-fire.
“If there are no clear answers forthcoming on this issue, I might be forced to recommend to the Cabinet early next week the halt of the army deployment in the south,” Murr told reporters after a meeting with U.N. representatives.
Witnesses also said Israeli missiles destroyed a bridge during the raid in what would be the first such airstrike since the cease-fire took effect on Monday, ending 34 days of warfare between the two sides.
The fighting did not appear to be escalating, but it highlighted the fragility of the 6-day-old truce as the United Nations pleaded for nations to contribute to an international peacekeeping force due to patrol southern Lebanon.
The Israeli military said such operations would continue until “an effective monitoring unit” was in place to prevent Hezbollah from rebuilding its arsenal.
“If the Syrians and Iran continue to arm Hezbollah in violation of the (U.N. cease-fire) resolution, Israel is entitled to act to defend the principle of the arms embargo,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “Once the Lebanese army and the international forces are active … then such Israeli activity will become superfluous.”
The first small contingent of reinforcements for the peacekeeping force — 49 French soldiers — landed Saturday in inflatable dinghies at the southern Lebanese coastal town of Naqoura, with 200 more expected next week.
But Deputy U.N. Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said more countries need to step forward to fill out a vanguard of 3,500 troops that the U.N. wants on the ground by Aug. 28 to help ensure that the truce between Israel and Lebanon holds after 34 days of warfare.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called Saturday’s commando raid a “flagrant violation” of the cease-fire, and said he would take the issue up with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Murr said the Israeli raid could spark Hezbollah retaliation, which in turn could lead to Israeli reprisals. He suggested Israel might be trying to provoke a response, so it could have an excuse to attack the Lebanese army. “We will not send the army to be prey in an Israeli trap,” he said.
Under the cease-fire terms, Israel has said it will conduct defensive operations if its troops are threatened. But the raid took place far from positions of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. The cease-fire resolution talks about an end to weapons shipments to Hezbollah as part of a long-term end to the conflict — but does not immediately require it.
Such a bold operation, jeopardizing the cease-fire, suggested Israel was going after a major target near Baalbek — perhaps to rescue two Israeli soldiers snatched by Hezbollah on July 12, or to try to capture a senior guerrilla official to trade for the soldiers.
Hezbollah has said it wants to exchange the two soldiers for Arab prisoners, but the U.N. cease-fire resolution demands Hezbollah unconditionally release the soldiers.
The Israeli commandos were dropped by helicopter on a hill outside the village of Boudai west of Baalbek and apparently were seeking a guerrilla target in a nearby school, Lebanese security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to the media.
Local media said Sheik Mohammed Yazbeck, a senior Hezbollah official in the Bekaa and a member of the Shura council of the group, may have been the target. Yazbeck is a native of Boudai.
Hezbollah TV said the guerrillas foiled the raid. Israel said one of its military officers was killed and two other soldiers were wounded, but the force completed its mission.
Lebanese security officials said three guerrillas were killed and three were wounded, but a Hezbollah spokesman said none of his fighters died.
Hezbollah officials at the scene said the Israeli commandos brought two vehicles with them that they used to drive into Boudai. They identified themselves as the Lebanese army when intercepted by Hezbollah fighters in a field, but the guerrillas grew suspicious and gunfire erupted, according to the officials.
Israeli helicopters fired missiles as the commandos withdrew and flew out of the area an hour later, they said.
Witnesses saw bandages and syringes at the landing site outside Boudai, about 10 miles west of Baalbek and 15 miles west of the Syrian border. A bridge was destroyed bridge about 500 yards from the area in what witnesses said was an Israeli airstrike.
The ancient town of Baalbek is the birthplace of the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah. The area in the eastern Bekaa Valley, 60 miles north of the Israeli border, is a major guerrilla stronghold.
On Aug. 2, Israeli commandos targeted the Iranian-funded, Hezbollah-run Dar al-Hikma Hospital in Baalbek, killing 16 people, according to Lebanese police. Israel said the building was a Hezbollah base, not a hospital, and that its soldiers captured five guerrilla fighters and killed 10 others before withdrawing.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh told reporters he protested the Israeli violation in talks with U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Beirut on Saturday and said the U.N. team would raise the issue with Israeli authorities.
“If Israel continues its violations, it is the responsibility of the (U.N.) Security Council to take action and ask Israel to stop these violations,” Salloukh said.
Also Saturday, a Lebanese civilian was killed when unexploded Israeli munitions from the offensive detonated in the village of Ras al-Ein, outside Tyre, said the Syrian Baath Party, of which the man was a member.
Roed-Larsen said the cease-fire brought a “huge opportunity” for the Lebanese government to extend its authority over southern Lebanon, which has been dominated for years by Hezbollah guerrillas.
Under the cease-fire plan, some 15,000 Lebanese troops are to move into the south, backed by the beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL, as Israeli forces withdraw. Once there, the troops are to enforce the cease-fire. Lebanon has said Hezbollah will not be allowed to bring its weapons out in public — though it has not said whether it will try the more controversial step of disarming the guerrillas.
The Lebanese army has deployed more than 1,500 troops in three sectors that Israeli forces have left, and the U.N. force — which currently numbers 2,000 — has set up checkpoints and started patrolling the areas.
So far, Italy and Finland have promised troops — and in an effort to encourage more countries to sign on, Annan said the peacekeeping force would not “wage war” on Israel, Lebanon, or Hezbollah militants, addressing a key concern of many countries.