Middle East conflict develops into regional war, Israel drives Hezbollah into panic

The conflict between Israel and Islamic militants threatens to become a large-scale deadly regional conflict after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers along the Israel-Lebanon border. In return, Israel immediately attacked Lebanon with air and artillery strikes.

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, Detroit Free Press says.

Israel sent troops and tanks into southern Lebanon, and Israeli fighter jets buzzed the capital, Beirut. At least eight Israeli soldiers died in fighting. It was the largest move of Israeli troops into Lebanon since Israel withdrew its last troops from its northern neighbor in 2000.

Early today, police said Israeli warplanes struck runways at Beirut's international airport in the Lebanese capital's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. A senior airport official announced the facility was closed and asked all scheduled flights to divert to Cyprus, the neighboring Mediterranean island. The main terminal was intact.

Lebanese guerrillas fired dozens of rockets at northern Israel on Thursday, killing an Israeli woman, damaging an air force base and keeping thousands of residents confined to underground shelters.

There were first signs that Israeli civilians were leaving towns and villages in rocket range, following the worst cross-border fighting in years. Cars with suitcases tied to the roofs headed south from the border town of Nahariya, which was hit by rockets Thursday.

Israel's Home Front Command ordered hotels and guest houses in northern Israel - a favorite summer vacationing area - to send all visitors home for the coming days. Hundreds of people canceled their weekend reservations in the area, tourism officials said.

The escalation began when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in attacks on northern Israel on Wednesday. Israel responded with its biggest campaign of air strikes ever in a single night, hitting dozens of Hezbollah targets and Beirut's airport. The military also imposed a sea and air blockade on Lebanon.

Senior Israeli government officials said Thursday their offensive in Lebanon was open-ended and would try to push the militants further away from the Israeli border, the AP reports.

Throughout the day Thursday, Hezbollah guerrillas fired some 60 Katyusha rockets at northern Israel, killing one woman and injuring about 30 people. Most were lightly hurt, hospital officials said.

The woman was killed in Nahariya, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the border. She was sitting on her fifth-floor balcony when a rocket hit her building, cutting through the ceiling above her.

Hezbollah guerrillas threatened on Thursday to attack with rockets the major Israeli port city of Haifa and its surroundings if Israel strikes the Lebanese capital Beirut and its southern suburbs.

Israel's army chief Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz said Thursday no targets in Lebanon are immune, including the capital Beirut, if the Lebanese government fails to rein in Hezbollah guerrillas. Israeli security officials also warned Lebanon that Israel will strike the Beirut-Damascus highway, the main land link between Lebanon and the outside world.

Source: agencies

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov