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Israel Strikes Southern Lebanon - 2004-01-20

Israeli warplanes attacked bases of the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon on Tuesday, one day after the militant Islamic group killed an Israeli soldier along the border.

Israeli army officials say they hit two bases of the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israeli army spokeswoman Major Sharon Feingold says that the bases were used by the Hezbollah to stage attacks against Israel.

She said the Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, is violating ceasefire agreements. At the same time she says "Lebanon turns a blind eye".

The air-strikes, the first since August last year, follows the killing of a 21-year-old Israeli soldier on Monday. He was hit by a missile as he was using a bulldozer to clear roadside bombs planted by the Hezbollah.

Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, says that in order to carry out this operation it was necessary for the bulldozer to pass a "meter or two" inside Lebanese territory". He said that when the Hezbollah saw this they seized upon the opportunity to launch an attack.

Mr. Mofaz also criticized the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for not preventing the incident. He said that the U.N. forces knew for several days that Hezbollah had planted the bombs along the Israeli border but made no effort to defuse them.

Ultimately Israel blames Syria, which is regarded as the main power broker in Lebanon, for failing to rein in the Hezbollah.

However, Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was decided not to hit Syria directly for fear this would inflame the situation even further.

Syria is listed by the State Department as a country that supports terrorism and the Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

David Baker, an official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says Hezbollah will not be allowed to attack the Jewish State whenever it chooses.

He says that the Israeli military operations in southern Lebanon are, in his words, "a purely defensive action and a message to the Hezbollah that they cannot strike at Israel with impunity".