Hezbollah fighters battled Israeli commandos who launched a raid near the militants’ stronghold inside Lebanon early today, killing one soldier, in the first large-scale violation of the ceasefire.
The battle outside the eastern town of Baalbek sparked a Lebanese complaint to the United Nations over Israel’s violation. Witnesses said Israeli missiles destroyed a bridge during the commando raid – the first such airstrike since the ceasefire began.
But there was no immediate escalation in the fighting, raising hopes for the six-day-old truce as the United Nations pleaded for nations to contribute to an international peacekeeping force due to patrol southern Lebanon.
The first small contingent of reinforcements for the peacekeeping force – 49 French soldiers – landed today at the southern Lebanese coastal town of Naqoura, with 200 more expected next week.
But Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said more countries need to step forward to fill out a vanguard of 3,500 troops that the UN wants on the ground by August 28 to help ensure the truce between Israel and Lebanon holds.
Under the ceasefire terms, Israel has said it will conduct defensive operations if its troops are threatened. But the pre-dawn raid today took place far from positions of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon.
The Israeli military said the assault aimed to disrupt arms smuggling to Hezbollah from Iran and Syria and that 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 (UN ceasefire) 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.”
Such a bold operation, risking the ceasefire, 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 UN ceasefire resolution demands Hezbollah unconditionally release the soldiers.
The Israeli commandos 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.
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.
Hezbollah TV said the guerrillas foiled the raid. Israel said one of its military officers was killed and two other soldiers were wounded, but that the force completed its mission.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh told reporters he protested about the Israeli violation in talks with UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in Beirut today and said the UN team would raise the issue with Israeli authorities.
“If Israel continues its violations, it is the responsibility of the (UN) Security Council to take action and ask Israel to stop these violations,” Salloukh said.
Under the ceasefire plan, some 15,000 Lebanese troops are to move into the south, backed by the beefed-up UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL, as Israeli forces withdraw. Once there, the troops are to enforce the ceasefire, and 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 UN force – which currently numbers 2,000 – has set up checkpoints and started patrolling the areas, he said.
The 49 French troops that landed by inflatable dinghy at Naqoura were the first forces in the planned expansion of UNIFIL, which is planned to reach 15,000 soldiers.
So far, Italy and Finland have promised troops – and in an effort to encourage more countries to sign on, UN chief Kofi Annan said the peacekeeping force would not “wage war” on Israel, Lebanon, or Hezbollah militants.