Israel Defense Forces commandos completed a raid of the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek in east Lebanon at daybreak Wednesday, in what Lebanese security sources described as a major operation against suspected Hezbollah positions.
In Baalbek, the commandos captured five Hezbollah militants and killed at least 10 others before completing the operation and safely returning to Israel, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said.
The IDF confirmed that its troops returned from the operation to their base in Israel unharmed and that several militants were captured by the raiding forces and taken back to Israel.
None of those seized were high-ranking Hezbollah officials, however, as the IDF had hoped. Halutz said Wednesday that the soldiers had not aimed to take any individuals in particular, but rather to demonstrate that the IDF could reach any part of Lebanon.
Hezbollah denied that any of its fighters had been captured, but Lebanese security sources confirmed that the commandos had snatched five low-ranking members of the guerilla group.
The Lebanese sources identified three of the men as Hussein Nasrallah, Hussein al-Burji and Ahmed al-Ghotah and described them as low ranking members of the group. The captured Hussein Nasrallah has the same name as a Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, but is not known to be related to him in any way.
The sources claimed that the raid aimed to capture senior Hezbollah man Mohammed Yazbek, who was reportedly being treated at the Dar al-Hikma hospital in the town.
Lebanese police reported at least twelve civilians were killed in an air strike on a village near Baalbek, Israel Radio reported.
They said Israel Air Force planes bombarded the village of Jammaliyeh during clashes nearby in Baalbek.
They said five members of the same family were found dead in one house and two more were found dead in another collapsed house.
Six other villagers were killed and two wounded.
One civilian was also killed by an air strike in Hermel to the north.
The forces landed by helicopterLebanese security sources said the IDF commandos landed by helicopter, launching several strikes near Baalbek, which is located in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (Click here for map)
One Lebanese officer said the Israel Air Force presence in the air above the ancient city was "unprecedented."
The operation began with at least five rapid air strikes on Baalbek and its surroundings at 10:20 P.M. - three hours before the end of Israel's self-imposed two-day pause in air attacks. Helicopters fired rockets and heavy machinegun fire at targets near a hospital in Baalbek and other sites in the city, witnesses said.
Witnesses in Baalbek said they saw dozens of IAF helicopters hovering over the city. They said the hospital in Baalbek, filled with patients and wounded people, was bombed by IAF helicopters late Tuesday. Plumes of burning smoke billowed from the hospital after it was directly hit, they said.
Flares held aloft by parachutes lighted the night sky to a daytime brilliance, a Lebanese security official said.
Four hours into the operation the fighting continued, witnesses said. IAF warplanes staged more than 10 bombing runs at 2.20 A.M. (2320 GMT) Wednesday around the hospital as well as on hills in east and north Baalbek.
Shortly after the IAF raids began, electricity was cut off, plunging Baalbek and other neighboring villages in total darkness.
IAF helicopters also attacked a target 15 kilometers west of Baalbek, starting a huge fire, witnesses said. It was not immediately known if the target was controlled by Hezbollah or the Lebanese army.
IAF helicopters also opened machine-gun fire on Hezbollah fighters entrenched outside the hospital, witnesses said.
IAF fighter jets returned at 3:35 A.M. Wednesday and fired eight missiles on residential neighborhoods in eastern and northern Baalbek where Hezbollah's Shiite supporters live, witnesses said. There was no immediate word on casualties.
However, fierce fighting around the hospital stopped shortly before 4 A.M. as precarious calm prevailed in Baalbek, residents said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, the residents said the Dar al-Hikma hospital is financed by an Iranian charity, the Imam Khomeini Charitable Society, which is close to Hezbollah. The hospital is also run by people close to Hezbollah, the residents said. Repeated telephone calls to the Dar al-Hikma hospital went unanswered.
Baalbek is about 100 kilometers north of the Litani River, which Israel had set as a northern boundary for an expanded ground operation that was announced in the early hours of Tuesday.
An ancient city with spectacular Roman ruins, Baalbek was a former Syrian army headquarters and included the barracks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards when they trained Hezbollah guerrillas there in the 1980s.
The last time IDF forces were know to have penetrated so far into Lebanon was in 1994, when they abducted Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani, hoping to use him to get information about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad. Dirani was released in a prisoner exchange 10 years later.
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