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Hezbollah kidnaps two Israeli soldiers

By SAMAR KADI

BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 12 (UPI) -- Israeli forces made an incursion into south Lebanon Wednesday following a Hezbollah cross-border attack in which militants kidnapped two soldiers.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah said it repelled the incursion into Lebanese territory and destroyed an Israeli tank, inflicting casualties among the troops.

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The incursion was preceded by Israeli air strikes and heavy bombardment of Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon border villages in which three Lebanese civilians were killed.

Security sources said at least 50 Israeli shells slammed into the Shabaa Farms area and that warplanes struck a power plant in south Lebanon, killing one civilian.

Two other civilians have been killed in raids on villages and several bridges in south Lebanon which Israel said it destroyed to obstruct the movement of Hezbollah fighters.

The United Nations condemned Hezbollah's attack, which it said is a dangerous violation of the Blue Line drawn by the U.N. following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.

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The U.N. secretary-general's personal representative for Lebanon Geir Pederson said in a statement the abduction of the two IDF soldiers "is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms" and called on Hezbollah to release them.

Hezbollah's attack, in which at least two Israeli soldiers are believed to have been killed, sparked fears of escalation of Middle East violence at a time Israel continued its military operation in Gaza in an attempt to free an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

The violence erupted in the early morning hours when Hezbollah gunmen fired katyusha rockets and mortars from the western sector of south Lebanon across the border, targeting the Israeli military outpost of Nourit.

Clashes across the Blue Line ensued during which the two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and six others injured.

A Hezbollah statement said the kidnapped soldiers were taken to a safe place and that the operation "came in line with the promise made by Hezbollah to free prisoners and detainees in Israeli jails."

The operation is on the surface aimed at swapping the Israeli soldiers with at least four Lebanese prisoners, along with Arab and Palestinian detainees.

Hezbollah, which is backed and influenced by both Syria and Iran, has previously vowed to free the prisoners. Among them the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel Samir Kantar who was captured 27 years ago while carrying out an operation inside Israeli territory.

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An Israeli military source, speaking to United Press International on condition of anonymity, confirmed the kidnapping of the two soldiers and said two or three soldiers might have been killed.

Another Israeli source said six soldiers were seriously injured, two of whom were in danger.

The source said Hezbollah gunmen fired rockets and mortars at Israeli troops and blew up an Israeli military vehicle with an explosive charge.

The Israeli army was placed on full alert along the border with Israel as well as the U.N. peacekeeping forces in south Lebanon in anticipation to a possible Israeli military intervention.

As soon as news of the kidnapping of the two soldiers circulated, sounds of firearms resounded in the mainly-Shiite southern suburb of Beirut and in south Lebanon towns in celebration.

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