Navy gunboats shell Beirut airport

PM Olmert approves widening the scope of IDF targets in Lebanon.

IAF jet 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
IAF jet 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF began bombing Beirut's southern neighborhoods Thursday night following the firing of two rockets at the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Navy gunboats shelled Beirut's airport for the second time Thursday. Witnesses reported that two fuel tanks were hit, while large flames could be seen at the airport. Following a day of Katyusha rockets raining on northern Israel on Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved on Thursday night the widening of the scope of IDF targets in Lebanon. Earlier on Thursday, the IAF dropped fliers over Beirut warning residents of the city to stay clear of Hizbullah operatives, buildings and positions. Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, along with almost the entire Hizbullah hierarchy, reside in the same neighborhood in southern Beirut. Hizbullah had warned Israel on Thursday afternoon that if the IDF attacked southern Beirut, where the organization's leadership is based, it Hizbullah would target Haifa. "The Islamic resistance warns against targeting civilians and the infrastructure," a statement read on Hizbullah TV said. "It (resistance) specifically announces that it will quickly shell the city of Haifa and nearby areas if the southern suburbs and the city of Beirut are subjected to any direct Israeli aggression," the statement said. Earlier Thursday the IDF struck the Beirut-Damascus highway. The road serves as the main access route between Lebanon and Syria, along which people and weapons were transferred into Lebanon. Security officials said that the bombing of the road contributed to the siege that the IDF was laying on Lebanon by air, sea and ground, Army Radio reported.
Earlier, Israeli warplanes blasted runways at the two main army air bases in eastern and northern Lebanon near Syria's border on Thursday, police said, attacks that could draw the Lebanese army into Israel's war with Hizbullah guerrillas. Israeli jets dropped two bombs on the runway at the Rayak air base in the eastern Beka'a Valley, damaging it, police said. There were no reports of casualties or damage to aircraft. Rayak, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Beirut and about 7 kilometers (4 miles) west of the Syrian border, is home to the country's main military air base and is the military headquarters in eastern Lebanon. Planes later attacked the Qoleiat air base near the Syrian border in the north with four missiles, police said. The strikes on the country's two air bases virtually neutralize Lebanon's air force. Israel laid siege Thursday morning to Lebanon, shutting down the country and closing off access by air, land and sea. IDF navy missile ships were patrolling off the Lebanese coast and preventing ships from entering Lebanon or leaving. Any ships arriving at Lebanese shores were being turned back. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said on Thursday morning that Israel would not allow Hizbullah to return to its positions on Lebanon's southern border. He also demanded that Lebanese forces secure the border, something they have not done to date, during comments made to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. A high-ranking IDF source said that the current operation, dubbed Operation Just Reward, would be "long" and could last up to several months, or "as long as it takes to destroy the Hizbullah's ability to launch attacks against Israel." The IDF source said the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut, a Hizbullah stronghold, would be targeted if rocket attacks continued to hit Israeli cities. The source said that all terrorists in Dahiya, including Hizbullah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah himself, were fair targets for the IDF. "We will operate against all the terrorists who operate against us," he said, warning that civilians inside Dahiya could also be hurt in a possible IDF strike. Nasrallah's family lived in the Dahiya neighborhood. Israel warned that any armed person who came within a kilometer of the border with Israel would be fired upon. The operation comes following a Hizbullah attack on Wednesday on the northern border that killed eight IDF soldiers and left two others in Hizbullah hands. Al-Jazeera reported Thursday that the soldiers were alive at the time of the kidnapping, according to a Hizbullah source. They were moved to a nearby mosque immediately after the abduction and then forced to switch clothes and taken by taxi to another location. Earlier on Thursday morning, Beirut International Airport was struck by an IAF air strike. IDF officers threatened they would bomb additional airports later in the day. Al-Jazeera reported that 15 people were killed in the airstrike. It was the first time since 1982 that the airport in south Beirut had been hit by Israel. The IDF said that the airport was targeted because it was used by Hizbullah to import weapons. The IAF attack forced the closure of the airport and the diversion of two flights to Cyprus. The army, the senior IDF source said, took into consideration the possibility that Hizbullah would fire long-range rockets at Israeli cities like Haifa and Hadera, but warned that if such attacks occurred, Israel would strike back hard, dealing a heavy blow to Lebanese government targets. He added that the Lebanese government was responsible for Wednesday's kidnapping attack on the northern border. "The bottom line is that the Lebanese government is the address, and it needs to take responsibility for what Hizbullah is doing in southern Lebanon," he emphasized. Since Wednesday, 40 targets have been hit inside Lebanon, including a home in the south that served as a Katyusha launch site. According to the IDF source, at least 30 Hizbullah operatives were killed and over 100 wounded. The attacks took place some 15 kilometers inside Lebanon. The source said that the IDF's goal "was not to chase after every Katyusha rocket in Hizbullah hands but to hit the terror group hard and to impair its ability to continue to attack Israel." "We are going to operate differently than we have in the past," he said. "We have a better ability to hit them than they have to hit us." The IDF, he added, was committed to retrieving the two IDF soldiers kidnapped in Wednesday's attack, but said the current military operation was meant to prevent other terror groups from attempting to kidnap Israeli soldiers in the future. "We will do everything we can to get them home." Earlier Thursday, IAF jets attacked Hizbullah's Al-Manar television station in the Haret Hreik district of Beirut. The station's manager Abdullah Kassir told Voice of Lebanon radio that one person had been hurt. Broadcasts were apparently continuing from the station. Hizbullah claimed immediately after the attack that broadcasts would continue from an underground section of the building. The names of six of the eight soldiers killed Wednesday in a Hizbullah attack on IDF forces patrolling the Lebanese border were released for publication Wednesday evening: Sgt. Nimrod Cohen, 19, from Mitzpe Shalem; Sgt.-Major Eyal Benin, 22, of Beersheba and Sgt.-Major Shani Turgeman, 24, of Beit Shean. All the soldiers' families have been notified. The fourth victim was later identified as Sergeant-Major Wasim Nazel, 27, from the Druze village of Kfar Yanuh. Nazel was expected to be buried Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in the military cemetery in Kfar Yanuh. Banin's funeral will take place at 4 p.m. in the military cemetery in Kiryat Shaul Turgeman will be laid to rest at 6 p.m. in the military section of the cemetery in his hometown. Cohen will also be laid to rest at 6 p.m. in Har Herzl in Jerusalem. Two of the other soldiers who were killed when the tank in which they were riding drove over an explosive device, were identified as St.-Sgt. Alexei Kashiniervski, 21, from Ness Ziona and Yaniv Bar-On, 19, from Maccabim. Under heavy fire, IDF forces continued their attempts to reclaim the bodies of the four soldiers who died when their tank was ripped apart by the blast. AP contributed to this report.