Hezbollah declares 'open war' on Israel

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah declared “open war” on Israel on Friday after emerging unscathed from an Israeli air strike on his home and office in the Lebanese capital.

“You wanted an open war, you will get an open war,” the Shi’ite militant leader said in a defiant audio message after the evening raid, the latest salvo in an escalating Israeli air campaign against Lebanon over Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday.

“It will be war at all levels ... to Haifa, and beyond Haifa,” Nasrallah said, referring to Israel’s third-largest city, which commanders there said came under unprecedented rocket fire from Lebanon on Thursday.

An Israeli military spokesperson declined to describe the evening air strike as an assassination attempt against the 45-year-old Hezbollah chief. She would confirm only that a “Hezbollah terror-organisation headquarters was targeted”.

But Israeli television said that it was a calculated attempt against Nasrallah’s life carried out in response to specific intelligence on his whereabouts.

Hezbollah television said the strikes “destroyed the building that hosts Hezbollah’s secretariat general” and that Nasrallah’s house was hit.
It was not immediately clear whether he had been in the targeted area.

Israeli government ministers had made no bones about their desire to see the Hezbollah leader eliminated.

“Nasrallah decided his own fate,” Israeli Interior Minister Roni Bar-On told public radio ahead of the strikes. “We will settle our accounts with him when the time comes.”

The Hezbollah leader’s predecessor, Abbas al-Musawi, was killed in a 1992 Israeli air strike along with his wife and three-year-old daughter.

But Nasrallah refused to be fazed by the raid on his home, promising Israeli commanders “surprises” in the movement’s resistance to its three-day-old onslaught.

The Hezbollah chief hailed a rocket attack launched from the Shi’ite southern suburbs of Beirut against an Israeli naval vessel patrolling offshore on Friday evening as a first example.

“Now, off the coast of the sea, the warship which attacked ... the southern suburbs ... watch it burning and drowning,” Nasrallah said.

An Israeli military spokesperson confirmed only that “there was a navy ship that was lightly hit along the Lebanese shore”, and declined to talk about casualties.

The attack on Nasrallah’s home and office, which Hezbollah television said his family and bodyguards also survived, was the latest barrage in an escalating Israeli campaign against the movement’s political and military infrastructure.

The group’s command headquarters in the southern suburbs had already come under repeated Israeli air attack, as had the transmitters of its radio and television channels.

Hezbollah is widely credited in Lebanon with having been instrumental in Israel’s 2000 pull-out from the south after a 22-year occupation. By the same token, it has long been one of Israel’s foremost foes.

“The target: Nasrallah,” the morning’s edition of Israel’s top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot had screamed in a front-page headline.

Another newspaper, Maariv, charged that Nasrallah, along with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Damascus-based Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, was “perhaps even more dangerous” than Hitler, responsible for exterminating six million Jews.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted on Friday that the offensive in Lebanon will go on until Hezbollah releases the two captured soldiers, halts rocket attacks against northern Israel and disarms.

Hezbollah insists there can be no question of releasing the two Israelis unless Palestinian and Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails are freed in return.

Security Council

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council debated the violence in Lebanon in an emergency meeting on Friday that ended with no action on Beirut’s demand for an immediate end to Israeli air strikes on its territory.

The debate highlighted divisions in the council, with the United States standing alone in refusing to even caution restraint from Israel over its military offensives in both Lebanon and Gaza.

US ambassador John Bolton laid sole blame for the escalating violence in the region on Iran and Syria and their support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and the armed wing of Hamas.

“Syria and Iran must be held to account for supporting regional terrorism and their role in the current crisis,” said ambassador John Bolton.

“All militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, must disarm and disband immediately,” he added.

The special council debate had been requested by the Lebanese government as Israeli planes launched fresh attacks on Hezbollah’s command headquarters in Beirut’s southern suburbs and other targets.

The Israeli offensive was triggered when Hezbollah guerrillas seized two Israeli servicemen in a deadly raid across the volatile Lebanon-Israel border on Wednesday.

Council members united in condemning the Hezbollah action and repeated rocket attacks into Israel, but most also voiced concern over the level of the Israeli military response that French ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere described as “disproportionate”.

The US, however, made no mention whatsover of the Israeli attacks, calling instead on Iran and Syria to stop their sponsorship of the Hezbollah and Hamas militants.

Bolton specifically reiterated a call for Syria to arrest Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who currently lives in Damascus.

The Lebanese government had called the debate to seek a council decision calling for a comprehensive ceasefire, the lifting of Israeli air and sea blockades imposed upon Lebanon and an end to the air strikes.

“We are meeting in the shadow of a widespread barbaric aggression waged by Israel against my nation,” Mahmoud said, adding that the Israeli action is aimed at “bringing Lebanon to its knees and subverting it by any means”.

According to Lebanese police, more than 60 civilians have been killed since Israel began its offensive two days ago.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, responded by calling Lebanon a breeding ground for terror and said Israel had “no choice’ but to react to the “unprovoked” attack on its soldiers and rocket attacks on its territory.

“Israel’s reactions were a direct response to an act of war from Lebanon,” Gillerman said. “I believe that most members around this table, as well as many in this chamber, including our neighbours, realise this reality.”

An expected presidential statement from the Security Council failed to materialise from the meeting after what diplomatic sources said was disagreement on the language to be used. Instead, the member states put out a press statement welcoming the decision by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to send a three-man crisis team to the Middle East.

The brief statement called on “all concerned states and parties to extend their full cooperation to the mission”, which has been tasked with a one-week mission to rein in escalating violence in the region.

The team, led by Annan’s special political adviser, Vijay Nambiar, arrived in Cairo on Friday for meetings with Egyptian officials and Arab League foreign ministers.

They are then expected to travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Syria.

The US on Thursday had vetoed a UN resolution calling on Israel to halt military operations in Gaza, sparked by the June 25 abduction by Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, of an Israeli soldier.

Bolton said the veto was a response to the “unbalanced” nature of the draft text, which he argued laid a disproportionate amount of blame on Israel.—AFP

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