Israel laid siege to Lebanon yesterday bombing Beirut airport, blockading sea ports and declaring its northern neighbour's airspace closed to everything but its jets launching waves of attacks.
Hizbullah, the Lebanese militia group, responded by bombarding Israel with scores of rockets, some of which for the first time hit a major city - the port of Haifa about 20 miles from the border.
Israeli air force planes ranged freely across Lebanon, bombing villages, army bases, bridges and a television station as the Jewish state intensified its campaign to win the release of two soldiers captured by Hizbullah on the border on Wednesday.
Lebanese civil defense workers stand in front of fuel storage tanks set ablaze after Israeli helicopter gunships unleashed missiles at Rafik Hariri International Airport, in Beirut, Lebanon, late Thursday, July 13, 2006. One Israeli helicopter gunship raked the fuel depots with machine gun fire while three others fired air-to-surface missiles. Officials said about a dozen projectiles struck the tanks on the eastern edge of the airport premises, and that several others missed. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
The air raids also severed the main road between Beirut and the Syrian capital, Damascus. Israeli gunboats turned ships away from Lebanese ports and last night flames were billowing from fuel tanks after a second attack on the capital's crippled airport. At least 50 Lebanese were killed in the assault, including 17 members of two families.
Hizbullah's rocket attacks on Israeli towns and kibbutz killed a woman and sent families fleeing from their homes for bomb shelters or areas away from the border. No one was injured by two rockets that fell on Haifa, but they had an important psychological impact because Hizbullah has not been able to hit targets so deep into Israel before, nor such a large city.
As the violence escalated it appeared to polarise reaction, with the US and EU taking markedly different stances. George Bush said Israel had the right to defend itself, but cautioned against bringing down the Lebanese administration. "The concern here is that any activities by Israel to protect herself will weaken that government ... topple that government, and we have made that clear in our discussions," he said during a visit to Germany. "Having said all that, people need to protect themselves."
He also said that Syria needed to be held to account for supporting Hizbullah and Hamas.
But the EU said the sea and air blockade was unjustified and it deplored the "disproportionate" use of force and the loss of civilian life. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said he would dispatch a three-person team to the region to try to defuse the crisis. The Israel-Lebanon crisis, coupled with anxiety over the mounting confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions, drove the price of crude oil to a record of almost $77 a barrel yesterday.
Hizbullah is demanding the release of Arab security prisoners in Israeli jails in return for the two captured soldiers and a third soldier held in the Gaza Strip after he was snatched by Palestinian militias last month.
Israel dropped leaflets warning residents of a Beirut suburb where Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, lives, to evacuate their homes. Its justice minister, Haim Ramon, suggested that the Hizbullah chief could be a target. "All those who plan the attacks, all those who allow such terror activities, are also a target," he told Israel radio. The Israeli military told a meeting of the government's security cabinet it also favoured attacking crucial infrastructure such as power plants. Israeli tanks were gathering on the border for what may be a wider ground operation.
An Israeli army spokesman, Erik Snider, said the blockade of Lebanon could go on for some time. "We're trying to isolate Lebanon to prevent attacks from Lebanon against Israeli soldiers and civilians," he said.
Israel said it feared the two captured soldiers - Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26 - could be taken to Iran, and the blockade and attacks were aimed at making that more difficult. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, said last night that Israel was "talking absurdities".
Lebanon appealed for an immediate ceasefire, saying it did not endorse the Hizbullah attacks. But Israel appeared determined to press ahead, saying it was responding to an "act of war" by the Lebanese government which contains members of Hizbullah.
Israel also kept up its campaign against Hamas in Gaza by blowing up the offices of the Palestinian foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar. It launched an assault on the Gaza Strip nearly three weeks ago after a soldier, Gilad Shalit, was seized by Palestinian militias. At the UN security council last night, the US vetoed a resolution backed by Arab countries condemning Israel and calling on it to end its military offensive in Gaza. Britain abstained, calling the resolution unbalanced. But the UK's ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, said Israel should defend itself "in a way which does not escalate the situation".
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006