U.S. Demands Soldiers' Release; World Leaders Urge Restraint

White House says Syria, Iran responsible for attack; EU: Lebanon's government bears some responsibility.

The White House on Wednesday demanded the immediate release of the two Israel Defense Forces soldiers captured by Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas earlier in the day, and blamed Syria and Iran for the attacks.

"We condemn in the strongest terms Hezbollah's unprovoked attack on Israel and the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers," said Frederick Jones, spokesman with the White House National Security Council.

"We call for immediate and unconditional release of the two soldiers," Jones told reporters in Germany, hours before President George W. Bush was to arrive for meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"We also hold Syria and Iran, which directly support Hezbollah, responsible for this attack and for the ensuing violence," Jones said.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, captured the two soldiers and killed seven others in a cross-border attack Wednesday morning, in what Israel described as an act of war by Lebanon that would draw a "very painful" response.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the two soldiers had been seized to force Israel to release prisoners.

Israel mobilised a reserve infantry division and Hezbollah declared an all-out military alert.

Jones said the attacks were aimed at exacerbating Middle East tensions. He underscored U.S. concerns about Hezbollah's role in Lebanon.

"Hezbollah terrorism is not in Lebanon's interests," Jones said. "This attack demonstrates that Hizbollah's continued impunity to arm itself and carry out operations from Lebanese territory is a direct threat to the security of the Lebanese people and the sovereignty of the Lebanese government."

Other international leaders universally condemned Hezbollah's abduction of the soldiers, but simultaneously urged Israel to respond with restraint.

"Hezbollah's action undermines regional stability and goes against the interests of both the Israeli and Lebanese people," said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement issued during a trip to France. She also urged Syria "to use its influence to support a positive outcome."

However, she continued, "all sides must act with restraint to resolve this incident peacefully and to protect innocent life and civilian infrastructure."

The European Union and individual European leaders echoed both the condemnation and the call for restraint.

"We are extremely concerned about this serious incident and the subsequent clashes," said European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin. "We unreservedly condemn kidnapping and the Israeli soldiers should be released safely forthwith."

She said, the border between Israel and Lebanon must be fully respected by both parties, and "we call on all parties to make every effort to end the violence."

Similarly, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement condemning the attack and demanding the return of the abducted soldiers, but he insisted that Israel's response must be "measured and proportionate."

Finland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said that Lebanon's government bears some of the responsibility for the deterioration in the security situation, and reiterated the EU's longstanding demand that Beirut impose its authority over the entire country. Currently, southern Lebanon is effectively controlled by Hezbollah, and the Lebanese army is conspicuous mainly by its absence.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan also demanded that Hezbollah release the kidnapped soldiers, and urged regional leaders to prevent an escalation of the conflict in the Middle East.

"I condemn without reservation the attack that took place... and demand that the Israeli troops be released immediately," Annan told a news conference in Rome.

"I think they [regional leaders] should also do whatever they can to press all parties to exercise restraint. We are looking at a very dangerous part of the world, and we would not want to see an expansion, an escalation of conflict in region."