Israel authorizes 'severe' response to abductions
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The Israeli Cabinet authorized "severe and harsh" retaliation on Lebanon after Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped two soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid Wednesday.
Israel quickly blamed the Lebanese government for the raid -- and charged it with the soldiers' safe release -- and the Israel Defense Forces began hammering Lebanon with artillery and airstrikes hours before the Cabinet met to discuss a response.
It is the second time in three weeks that an Israeli soldier has been abducted. Concerns abound that the situation on Israel's northern border will escalate to the level it has reached in Gaza, where the IDF launched an ongoing offensive June 28 after the abduction of Army Cpl. Gilad Shalit three days prior. (Watch as people in Lebanon flee the violence -- 2:42)
At least 19 Palestinians were reported dead in Gaza in Wednesday's fighting, according to Palestinian sources. (Full story)
'Act of war'
Israel called Wednesday's abductions an act of war, and Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's Northern Command, said he has "comprehensive plans" to battle Hezbollah throughout Lebanon, not just in its southern stronghold.
"This affair is between Israel and the state of Lebanon," Adam said. "Where to attack? Once it is inside Lebanon, everything is legitimate -- not just southern Lebanon, not just the line of Hezbollah posts." (Watch as Israeli forces enter Lebanon -- 2:29)
Earlier, Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told Israel's Channel 10, "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years."
Five more Israeli soldiers died in fighting following the raid. Four died in an attack on their tank, and another died as soldiers tried to help them, the IDF reported.
Four Israel civilians and six soldiers have been wounded so far in the fighting, which has included more than 100 airstrikes on what Israel says are Hezbollah bases, and road and bridges that could be used in transporting the kidnapped soldiers.
Talks or bust
Shortly after Hezbollah fighters attacked an IDF military vehicle between Zar'it and Shtula and kidnapped the soldiers, the Islamic militia's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, called the abductions as "our natural, only and logical right."
He further said that the soldiers had been taken "far, far away" and that no Israeli military campaign would secure their release. Hezbollah has demanded "direct negotiations" regarding a prisoner exchange with Israel.
"We want our prisoners released," Nasrallah said.
But Israel has rebuffed that demand, saying -- as it has to the Palestinians -- that a prisoner exchange would encourage more kidnappings. Government spokesman Gideon Meir said Israel wanted the soldiers returned "immediately without any precondition -- no negotiation."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, like his general, pointed the finger at Lebanon, not just Hezbollah.
The raid was "not a terror attack, but an operation of a sovereign state without any reason or provocation," he said. "The Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is part of, is trying to undermine the stability of the region, and the Lebanese government will be responsible for the consequences."
Hezbollah, which enjoys substantial backing from Syria and Iran, is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. The group holds posts in Lebanon's government.
Lebanon has tried to distance itself from the raid that sparked the most recent hostilities, recalling its ambassador to the United States, Farid Abboud, for making "irresponsible" public comments, said Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh.
Hamadeh would not divulge the comments. But Abboud appeared to endorse Hezbollah's call for a prisoner swap during an interview Wednesday with CNN International.
"We have our prisoners. They have prisoners. An exchange would be appropriate, and I think it will resolve the problem," Abboud said.
Israel, which pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation, has exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah before, most recently in 2004 when Israel exchanged more than 400 Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab prisoners for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
An international plea
The United States and the United Nations urged Hezbollah to release the soldiers, and the White House called the raid "an affront to the sovereignty of the Lebanese government." Washington also called on Syria and Iran to cut off their support to the group.
"Hezbollah's actions are not in the interest of the Lebanese people, whose welfare should not be held hostage to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes," the White House said in a statement.
Syria and Iran are the scapegoats because of their support for Hezbollah and because the Lebanese government does not have the capacity to expand its authority into the south, where Hezbollah maintains control, U.S. State Department officials said.
As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on regional leaders to exercise restraint to prevent the conflict from spreading, a former U.S. ambassador warned that the fighting "could easily widen further."
"We may see reoccupation of southern Lebanon, which would be unfortunate," said Edward Walker, who oversaw U.S. missions in Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke three times Wednesday with Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Sinora, who came to power in the 2005 Cedar Revolution that ousted a pro-Syrian government.
Sinora is seen as friendly to the United States. The Bush administration has urged him to disarm Hezbollah through a process of national reconciliation.
Rice asked Sinora to exercise what influence his government has to secure the freedom of the soldiers captured on Wednesday. She also spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni twice, and with Olmert and Annan.
Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was in the Syrian capital, where he was urging Damascus to exercise its influence over Hezbollah.
CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.
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