Text size

Israel Defense Forces soldiers managed Thursday to retrieve the bodies of four comrades killed a day earlier when their tank was destroyed by a mine in south Lebanon.

Efforts to retrieve the victims, which were ongoing since Wednesday, were carried out under heavy Hezbollah gunfire.

The IDF placed a tight security ring around the tank in order to prevent Hezbollah fighters from reaching the stricken vehicle. The Merkava-2 tank was destroyed by a mine packed with between 200 and 300 kilometers of explosives.

The incident took place when IDF infantry and armored forces entered Lebanon after a Hezbollah cross-border attack and the kidnapping of two soldiers.

Hezbollah seeks to transfer soldiers to IranIsrael has concrete evidence that Hezbollah plans to transfer to Iran the two IDF soldiers abducted Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday.

"We have concrete evidence that Hezbollah plans to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran. As a result, Israel views Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as the main players in the axis of terror and hate that endangers not only Israel, but the entire world," AFP quoted Deputy Director General of the Foreign Ministry Gideon Meir as saying.

An Al-Jazeera correspondent said Thursday that he had evidence that the two soldiers - identified Thursday as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, of Nahariya, and Eldad Regev, 26, of Kiryat Motzkin - were alive during the abduction. He said they were transferred to a Shi'ite mosque in a nearby town, where the abductors changed clothes.

According to the report, one of the soldiers was transferred in a cab, to make it difficult for Israeli intelligence to locate him. The Al-Jazeera correspondent stressed that he had received the information from a source close to Hezbollah, and that members of the organization refuse to disclose more information with nothing in return.

Eight IDF soldiers were also killed in a series of Hezbollah assaults on the northern border Wednesday. Another five soldiers and five civilians were wounded in the attacks.

Israel responded with massive aerial attacks on targets throughout Lebanon.

The fighting began at about 9:00 A.M., when a group of reserve soldiers in two armored jeeps was conducting a routine patrol of the border. As the jeeps passed between Moshav Zarit and Moshav Shtula, Hezbollah attacked.

An initial inquiry revealed that the Hezbollah operatives had crossed the border earlier via a "dead zone" in the border fence not visible from any of the IDF observation posts. There are dozens of similar "dead zones" along the northern border, though the IDF said that observation cameras to cover this particular spot were due to be installed next week. The assailants may have used a wheeled ladder to climb over the fence.

The operatives hid themselves in an overgrown wadi about 200 meters on the Israeli side of the fence and waited until the IDF troops arrived, whereupon they attacked, apparently with a combination of explosives and anti-tank missiles.

Three soldiers were killed during the initial assault, while one soldier was seriously wounded, another lightly wounded and a third suffered a shrapnel scratch. In addition, the assailants kidnapped the two soldiers. According to the IDF, Hezbollah probably had an escape vehicle waiting on the other side of the fence. The entire incident took no more than 10 minutes, and the Israeli soldiers apparently never fired a shot.

Ambush and diversionary attackSimultaneously with this ambush, Hezbollah also launched a diversionary attack: a barrage of mortar shells and Katyusha rockets on communities and IDF outposts in the western part of the border area. That assault wounded five civilians, though none seriously: Some were lightly wounded, and the others suffered from shock.

As soon as this barrage began, the Galilee Division conducted a routine check to ensure that all army outposts and vehicles were still in contact with headquarters, and quickly discovered that contact had been lost with the two jeeps patrolling near Zarit. Both jeeps had been damaged in the Hezbollah assault. A rescue force was summoned to the scene, and when it arrived, about half an hour after the attack, it found the two damaged jeeps and the dead and wounded soldiers. The rescue force soon realized that two of the soldiers had been kidnapped and sent out an alert.

Due in part to the lessons learned from the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit less than three weeks earlier, a force of tanks and armored personnel carriers was immediately sent into Lebanon in hot pursuit. It was during this pursuit, at about 11:00 A.M., that the second deadly incident occurred: A Merkava tank drove over a powerful bomb, containing an estimated 200 to 300 kilograms of explosives, about 70 meters north of the border fence. The tank was almost completely destroyed, and all four crew members were killed instantly.

Over the next several hours, IDF soldiers waged a fierce fight against Hezbollah gunmen as the soldiers tried to extricate the damaged tank, in order to recover the bodies and to keep Hezbollah from stealing it. During the course of this battle, at about 3:00 P.M., another soldier was killed and two were lightly wounded. As of press time Wednesday night, however, the tank had still not been extracted.

Due to the force of the bomb, only bits and pieces of the soldiers' bodies are likely to be found inside.

The damaged tank did not have armored plating on its belly; most tanks with such protection are stationed on the Gaza border. However, tank officers said that due to the size of the bomb, such plating would still not have saved the soldiers' lives.

The fighting continued throughout the day, with Hezbollah gunmen repeatedly trying to attack army outposts along the border. At the Oranit outpost near Rosh Hanikra, soldiers killed one Hezbollah operative; other Hezbollah gunmen were apparently killed during an assault on the Dvoranit outpost. The IDF suffered no casualties during these battles.

In response to the Hezbollah onslaught, the IDF attacked dozens of targets throughout Lebanon, including Hezbollah outposts and several bridges over the Awali River. According to the IDF, all Hezbollah outposts along the border were destroyed. The bombing, which included targets in central and northern Lebanon, apparently caused multiple Lebanese casualties.

According to GOC Northern Command Udi Adam, the IDF had no intelligence warnings of the Hezbollah attack. After Shalit was kidnapped, he said, the army decided to up the alert level in the north for fear of a similar attack, but a few days ago, the alert was lowered again.