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The Middle East is On Fire

By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer
33 minutes ago

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israel tightened its seal on Lebanon, blasting its air and road links to the outside world and bringing its offensive to the capital for the first time Friday to punish Hezbollah — and with it, the country — for the capture of two Israeli soldiers.

Warplanes again smashed runways at Beirut's airport with hours of airstrikes, trying to render it unusable, and destroyed mountain bridges on the main highway to Syria. Warships blockaded Lebanon's ports for a second day.

Smoke drifted over the capital after strikes exploded fuel tanks at one of Beirut's two main power stations, gradually escalating the damage to Lebanon's key infrastructure.

Lebanese guerrillas responded by firing a barrage of at least 50 Katyusha rockets throughout the day into northern Israeli towns.

The death toll in three days of fighting rose to 61 people in Lebanon and 10 in Israel. The violence sent shock waves through a region already traumatized by the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

Israel's offensive pressed ahead with several goals. Its strikes on the airport and roads and naval blockade all but cut off Lebanon from the world, while hits on infrastructure aimed to exact a price from its government for allowing Hezbollah to operate freely in the south.

At the same time, strikes on Hezbollah — including ones targeting its leadership in south Beirut — aimed to pressure the Shiite Muslim guerrillas to release the Israeli soldiers captured Wednesday and push the militants away from Israel's northern border.

But there were fears — acknowledged by President Bush — that the Israeli assault could bring down the Western-backed, anti-Syrian government of Lebanon.

Bush, in Russia for the G-8 summit, spoke by phone with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and promised to pressure Israel "to limit damage to Lebanon ... and to spare civilians and innocent people from harm," according to a statement from Saniora's office.

But the promise fell short of the Lebanese leader's request for pressure for a cease-fire. The White House confirmed the call but would provide no details of the discussions.

French President Jacques Chirac said Israel's actions were "totally disproportionate" but also condemned Hezbollah's attacks. He implicitly suggested that Syria and Iran might be playing a role in the expanding crisis.

The U.N.'s top humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, said Israel's attacks against transportation infrastructure violated international law and held grave consequences for civilians.

Some 5,000 Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad after Friday prayers, praising the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah group and denouncing Israel and the United States for attacks against Lebanon. Some protesters said they were ready to fight the Israelis.

Israeli officials said the campaign by the air force was the biggest since the Israeli invasion in 1982. The only comparable military action since then was the "Grapes of Wrath" offensive in 1996, also sparked by Hezbollah attacks.

But the casualties were mounting faster than in 1996, when at least 165 people were killed in 17 days of fighting, including more than 100 civilians who died in Israeli shelling of a U.N. base.

By contrast, 61 people in Lebanon have been killed in only three days of Israel's bombardment, mostly Lebanese civilians — including three who died in bombing of south Beirut early Friday, police said.

On the Israeli side, eight soldiers have died and two civilians were killed by Hezbollah rockets on northern towns. At least 11 were wounded in Friday's rocket attacks.

Israel says it holds the government responsible for Hezbollah's actions, but Saniora's Cabinet has insisted it had no prior knowledge of the raid that seized the soldiers and that it did not condone it.

Hezbollah operates with near autonomy in south Lebanon, and the government has resisted international pressure to disarm it — a step that could break the country apart. Saniora's government is dominated by anti-Syrian politicians, some sharply critical of Hezbollah, but the guerrilla group also has two ministers in the Cabinet.

The fighting in Lebanon is Israel's second front after it launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago in response to the June 25 capture by Hamas militants of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

Throughout the morning, Israeli fighter-bombers pounded runways at Beirut's airport for a second day, apparently trying to ensure its closure after the Lebanese national carrier, Middle East Airlines, managed to evacuate its last five planes to Amman. One bomb hit close to the terminal building.

Another barrage hit fuel tanks at one of Beirut's two main power stations at Jiye. Some parts of the capital were already seeing electricity outages before the strike, which was likely to worsen power shortages.

For the first time in the assault, strikes targeted residential neighborhoods in south Beirut, a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah's leadership. Warplanes rained missiles on roads in the suburbs, knocking down an overpass and damaging another.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli military said the Hezbollah security headquarters in the neighborhood was targeted by the airstrikes — but an AP photographer at the scene saw no sign of damage to the building, and Hezbollah media chief Hussein Rahal said it had not been hit.

Instead, the facades of nearby apartment buildings were shorn away, balconies toppled onto cars and the street littered by glass from shattered windows. Firefighters struggled to put out several blazes.

A young man with blood pouring down his face was shown on Lebanese TV walking out of a damaged apartment building.

"I have huge debts and now my store is damaged," said Fadi Haidar, 36, cleaning away broken glass at his appliances shop, which had an estimated $15,000 in damage.

Still, he supported Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in their decision to seize the soldiers.

"Israel is our enemy and every Muslim must make a sacrifice," he said. "As time goes by, they will all realize that Sayyed Nasrallah is right and is working in the interest of Muslims."

Israeli planes also hit transmission antennas for local TV stations in the eastern Bekaa Valley, a Hezbollah stronghold. Anwar Raja of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command said the planes attacked the towers, but did not hit the guerrillas' base at Qousaya.

Warplanes also bombed the highway between Beirut and Damascus — Lebanon's main land link to the outside world — forcing motorists onto mountainside roads to the Syrian capital. Warships shelled the coastal highway north of Sidon, slowing traffic considerably but not actually cutting the road, witnesses said.

In northern Israel, 220,000 people hunkered down in bomb shelters amid Hezbollah's rocket barrage.

At least 50 rockets hit seven towns and communities in Israel, including Safad and Nahariya — where two people were killed a day earlier. Since Wednesday, 61 Israelis have been hurt in the rocket fire.

Many Israelis were shocked Thursday when two rockets hit Haifa, the country's third-largest city, 30 miles south of Lebanon. No guerrilla rocket had ever reached that far into Israel. Hezbollah denied targeting the port city.

The Israeli offensive was causing political waves in Lebanon, with some anti-Syrian politicians accusing Hezbollah of dragging the country into a costly confrontation with Israel.

"Hezbollah is playing a dangerous game that exceeds the border of Lebanon," Druse leader Walid Jumblatt said in comments published Friday.

Jumblatt, a leading anti-Syrian figure, also denounced the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, calling them completely unjustified.