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Capture of Israeli soldiers raises specter of broader Mideast conflict

SHOMERA, Israel—A new crisis between Israel and Islamic militants threatened to escalate into a broader and deadlier regional conflict on Wednesday after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a coordinated assault along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the militant Islamic group's action an "act of war" backed by the Lebanese government. The United States accused Syria and Iran, which both support Hezbollah, of being behind the attack.

"I think we are at the beginning phase of the next Middle Eastern war, which is Israel against fundamentalist Islam," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at The Shalem Center policy institute in Jerusalem.

In Beirut, Shiite Muslim Hezbollah leaders said the Israeli soldiers would be released only in exchange for prisoners being held by Israel. The Palestinian militants in Gaza who are holding an Israeli soldier they captured on June 25 are making the same demand.

Israel sent troops and tanks into southern Lebanon in an effort to cut off the Hezbollah militants, and Israeli fighter jets buzzed the capital, Beirut. At least eight Israeli soldiers died in fighting.

It was the largest incursion of Israeli troops into Lebanon since Israel withdrew its last troops from its northern neighbor in 2000.

The head of operations for Israel's Northern Command, Col. Boaz Cohen, refused to rule out targeting the Lebanese capital.

"Every target in Lebanon is a legitimate target," he said. "Lebanon has asked for a cease-fire, but we will not cease fire until we see those soldiers safe back at home."

Hezbollah struck in the north as Israel remains mired in a prolonged military campaign to find Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, in Gaza, on the country's southern border.

Since Shalit's capture, Israel has bombed Gaza almost every night, sent fighter jets over Syria to intimidate Pres. Bashar Assad, destroyed the office of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and assassinated a top Hamas leader.

Israel was bracing for a long campaign to find the soldier and stop Palestinian militants from firing rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.

Now that goal has been complicated by Hezbollah's success in capturing two more Israeli soldiers.

In Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora tried to distance his fragile, year-old coalition government from the Hezbollah attack.

"The government was not aware of (Hezbollah's operation) and does not take responsibility for, nor endorse what happened on the international border," he said.

Lebanon also recalled its ambassador to the United States, Farid Abboud, after he reportedly said the government supported the Hezbollah attack.

A former Lebanese president, Amine Gemayel, also was critical and warned that Hezbollah's actions could have huge consequences. "Today's operation has regional repercussions that go beyond the return of the detainees," he said.

Hezbollah has long controlled Lebanon's southern border with Israel and operated autonomously from the string of governments in Beirut long dominated by Syria. David Schenker, a senior fellow in Arab politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, warned against blaming the Lebanese government for the attack.

"The government of Lebanon is weak and divided and, in a sense, it is unproductive to hold them accountable for these actions," he said.

It was unknown if Hezbollah and Hamas had worked together in planning Wednesday's assault. Hezbollah, which in the 1980s bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and took U.S. citizens there hostage, is made up primarily of Lebanese Shiite Muslims backed by Iran.

Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni Muslim organization also backed by Iran, but whose financing also came from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Syria and from some wealthy Saudi Arabians.

Both organizations have offices in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and Hezbollah has become a source of support for Hamas since the United States, Israel and the European Union cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won January elections.

Both groups are on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told reporters in Beirut that Hezbollah had been planning the action for months.

Nasrallah said the soldiers were "in a safe and very far place." The only thing that will win the soldiers' freedom, he said, will be freedom for Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Cohen said that militants crossed into Israel in at least two places, while others fired rockets at several sites along the border.

In one assault, two Israeli Humvees on border patrol were hit by a roadside bomb, then besieged by gunmen who captured the two Israeli soldiers and spirited them into southern Lebanon, Cohen said. Three Israeli soldiers died in that attack.

Israel immediately launched a counter-offensive to prevent the militants from escaping. Israeli fighter jets bombed dozens of targets, including a series of bridges in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah bases.

Four Israeli soldiers were killed when their tank apparently hit a mine or a roadside bomb as it crossed into southern Lebanon, and a fifth died in the assault, bringing to eight the number of Israeli deaths.

There was no word on Hezbollah casualties.

In the Israeli town of Shomera, two miles from the border, Israeli artillery could be heard pounding Lebanon, and helicopters could be seen overhead, firing bursts from heavy machine guns.

In Beirut, Hezbollah supporters celebrated in the streets by firing guns and fireworks into the air, and the group's leader warned Israel that its military attacks would prove futile in freeing the captured soldiers.

Olmert has publicly rebuffed the demands and said he will not give into extortion. But Israel has a long history of trading prisoners for Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Most recently, Israel released more than 400 prisoners in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers held by Hezbollah.

At their bed-and-breakfast in Shomera, Avi and Gabrielle Peretz debated the wisdom of a prisoner exchange as Israeli artillery fire from the valley below interrupted their conversation.

The couple have one son in the army and another being recalled for more service.

Gabrielle Peretz called prisoner exchanges a bad solution.

"Why?" Avi Peretz asked her husband. "If it was your son . . . ."

"It's a very hard decision," said Gabrielle Peretz.

"I think of their parents," said Avi Peretz.

"She thinks like a mother," said her husband.

"Yes," Avi Peretz said, as the town's loudspeaker implored its residents to head to their bomb shelters because of fears of more attacks from the north.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Nada Raad in Beirut and Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): MIDEAST LEBANON

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