The Israeli army launched a ground and air assault on south Lebanon Wednesday after Hizbullah announced that it captured two Israeli soldiers along the border with the Jewish state.
"Our planes, tanks and artillery are operating inside Lebanese territory," an Israeli army spokesman said, stressing the offensive began after the kidnapping of the two soldiers.
The Israeli army called up a rapid deployment division of 6,000 soldiers to the country's northern border following the capture, a military source said. In addition, Israel had already started calling up reserve troops, indicating a large-scale campaign, Israel's Channel 10 television said. It said a reserve infantry division had been mobilized and was expected to be sent to the northern border with Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described Hizuollah's raid as an "act of war" by Lebanon and said its government would bear the consequences. Olmert threatened "very painful and far-reaching" action in response to the raids. "It is an act of war by the state of Lebanon against the state of Israel in its sovereign territory," Olmert told a news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Lebanese security officials said two civilians were killed and three injured in an airstrike on the Qasimiyeh bridge, at the mouth of the Litani river about 30 kilometers north of the Israeli border.
Two other civilians were wounded when an Israeli helicopter fired rockets on the Tair Harfa region near the border as aircrafts continued striking the infrastructure and Hizbullah positions in southern Lebanon.
The air raids apparently were to block any escape route for the fighters who may be taking the captured soldiers to areas further removed from the border in order to prevent an Israeli rescue mission.
Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV station reported that Israeli artillery was pounding the fringes of the villages of Aita el-Shaab, Ramieh and Yaroun in the hills east of the coastal border port of Naqoura.
The international community on Wednesday called for the immediate release of two Israeli soldiers and appealed for calm.
"I call on Hizbullah to release the soldiers," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal representative to south Lebanon, Gier Pederson, told reporters after meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Saniora. According to AFP, he also urged "all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid any further escalation."
EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin urged both sides to respect the Blue Line drawn by the U.N. after the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. "We're extremely concerned," Udwin said. "There has been a very serious incident." She said the EU "unreservedly" condemned the kidnapping.
"The Israeli soldiers must be released immediately, in safety," Udwin said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch warned that the capture of the two soldiers was "a very dangerous escalation" and demanded their release. "This is a very dangerous but important moment, when the responsibilities of all those who are sincere about finding a path toward peace will be tested," said Welch speaking in Cairo.
The British foreign office voiced concern about the capture of the two soldiers. "Hizbullah's actions will further escalate an already tense situation in the region. A further escalation is in no one's interest," Howells said in a statement.