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Fighting escalates between Israel, Hezbollah

BEIRUT, Lebanon—The second day of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants quickly escalated into all-out warfare on Thursday as Israel bombed the Lebanese capital's suburbs and crippled the airport. Hezbollah militants responded by firing more than 100 missiles into northern Israel.

Israel reported that at least one missile struck Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, but Hezbollah denied that it had fired on the city.

At least 50 Lebanese and two Israeli citizens were killed. There were few indications that any diplomatic efforts would bring a quick end to the escalating crisis.

Thursday's explosion of violence, one day after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in northern Israel, was the worst fighting between Israel and its Lebanon-based rivals in more than a decade. World leaders immediately expressed concerns that the conflict would have far larger ramifications than the battle to recover the soldiers.

President Bush, while defending Israel's actions, worried that the year-old reformist Lebanese government led by Fouad Siniora could become one of the biggest casualties in the conflict. National security adviser Stephen Hadley said that the U.S. has asked Israel to be certain that its retaliation minimized "collateral and civilian casualties."

"Whatever Israel does, though, should not weaken the Siniora government in Lebanon," Bush said during a news conference in Germany. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon."

The office of the European Union presidency condemned Israel for what it called its "disproportionate use of force," while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that any Israeli attack on Syria "would be like attacking the whole Islamic world."

An air of panic swept Beirut, which in recent years had become one of the region's most tranquil cities after decades of civil war. Families rushed to fill up their cars and flooded supermarkets to stock up on food.

"We are living in a state of war," said Carol Maalouf, who works for a restaurant in downtown Beirut. "There are no people. The majority of restaurants are closed. You can see that the downtown turned into a dead area."

Israel said that bombing Beirut International Airport's three runways was intended to prevent Hezbollah from removing the soldiers from the country, though its most immediate effect was closing the airport and forcing thousands of tourists to flee to Syria in search of flights home. Lebanon's transportation minister said the damage could be repaired in 48 hours, but that the airport might remain closed.

Israeli jets later bombed Lebanese military airports, imposed an air and sea blockade on the country and struck at Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station. Israeli tanks by the dozens crossed into southern Lebanon.

In a search for a diplomatic solution and an immediate cease-fire, Siniora met with diplomats from France, the United States and England. But Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, harshly criticized Siniora's government in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, calling Wednesday's attack "a clear declaration of war."

"These acts pose a grave threat not just to Israel's northern border, but also to the region and the entire world," Gillerman wrote. "The ineptitude and inaction of the government of Lebanon has led to a situation in which it has not exercised jurisdiction over its own territory for many years."

As Israel was stepping up its attacks, Hezbollah militants in the south fired dozens of rockets into Israeli towns, cities and farming communities along the Lebanese border. At least two Israelis were killed and about 100 were treated for injuries, including shock.

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Israelis planning summer getaways to the cooler mountains near the Lebanese border canceled their reservations as those already in the north cut their vacations short.

"The situation is very hard here," said Gabrielle Peretz, the head of sales for Israel's top dairy company, who lives less than two miles from the border with Lebanon. "We had six years of quiet and a good life, and now everything is back on us: all the fear and bad economy."

The crisis was sparked Wednesday by a coordinated assault and ambush by Hezbollah militants along Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Two Israeli army Humvees patrolling the border were hit by a roadside bomb. Three soldiers were killed and two were captured.

As Israeli forces moved into Lebanon to try to rescue the soldiers, a tank was hit by a massive explosion, immediately killing four soldiers and fatally wounding a fifth.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack an "act of war," and on Thursday, his military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, warned that nothing was immune from attack unless the soldiers were freed.

"Nothing is safe," Halutz said. "It's as simple as that."

On Thursday, the captured soldiers were identified by the Israeli media as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26.

Their abduction came less than three weeks after Palestinian militants captured a 19-year-old French-Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a well-planned attack on an Israeli military outpost on the Gaza Strip border.

That incident sparked an ongoing Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip that has left dozens of Palestinian fighters and civilians dead. Israel has destroyed the offices of the Palestinian Authority's top leaders, crippled the Gaza Strip's only power plant and sent tanks and soldiers into the region to prevent militants from firing rudimentary rockets into southern Israel.

Militants holding the Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have said that the men will be freed only in exchange for the release of hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Israel has rejected any talk of a prisoner exchange, calling it extortion that would only encourage militants to embrace the strategy.

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(Raad reported from Beirut; Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem and the Israel-Lebanon border. Matthew Schofield in Berlin and William Douglas in Stralsund, Germany contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060713 Lebanon attack and 20060713 MIDEAST Haifa

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