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Hezbollah Captures Two Israeli Soldiers

RENEE MONTANGE, host:

The Hezbollah guerrilla organization, in Southern Lebanon, today, captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. The raid provoked clashes along the border between Israel and Lebanon that left seven other Israeli soldiers dead. Israeli troops have crossed into Lebanon in search of the soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has labeled Hezbollah attacks an act of war. NPR's Linda Gradstein joins us now from Jerusalem. And Linda, talk to us about the fighting, what it's about, and what happened with these soldiers.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Well, there have been periodic flare-ups along the Israeli/Lebanese border. And Hezbollah has threatened to capture soldiers. What happened this morning is, Hezbollah guerrillas launched Katyusha rockets and mortars at both army outposts and little towns in Northern Israel. At least eight people were reported wounded, and these two soldiers were kidnapped.

The heavy fighting is continuing. Lebanese security officials say Israeli war plans are hitting roads, bridges, and guerilla positions, apparently to try to block any escape routes for Hezbollah with the soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has summoned an emergency cabinet meeting. Hezbollah TV said that they want a prisoner exchange with Israel.

And of course, it also comes as an Israeli soldier was captured two and a half week ago in a cross border raid from Gaza. So it's a sort of opening of a second front, for Israel.

MONTAGNE: Now, these latest kidnappings come after militants in Gaza -obviously, separate militants, as you said - seized an Israeli soldier during last month's incursion into Israel. What is the news of him?

GRADSTEIN: Well, now, as you said, it's been two and half weeks and there has been no news of the soldier. The militants who are believed to be holding him have said that they would only give proof that he is still alive in exchange for Israel releasing Palestinian women and minors from Israeli jails which Israel has so far refused to do. Military sources say they believe the soldier is still alive. They believe he's still being held in Gaza, apparently by Hamas. And Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has taken a very strong position that there will be no prisoner exchange.

Israel has also stepped up its military offensive, in Gaza, overnight. They dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a house in She Hedron(ph) neighborhood in Gaza city, where Israel believed that senior Hamas officials were hiding. There are conflicting reports about whether Hamas officials were wounded. But six Palestinians were killed, including five members of one family, among them three children.

Israel also moved into Central Gaza for the first time, cutting the Gaza strip in half.

MONTANGE: And what about the Palestinians - the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

GRADSTEIN: International aid officials say it's getting more difficult. The most acute crisis is on the Rafah border, which has been closed for more than two weeks now. The Red Cross says that there are 3,000 Palestinians waiting to get back from Egypt, into Gaza, including about 600 urgent humanitarian cases.

These Palestinians are stranded in a makeshift terminal, you know, with temperatures that are over a hundred degrees. Four Palestinians have died in recent days. Palestinians in Gaza are also reporting shortages of fuel. Many residents are still without electricity, some of them are still without water, and international aid organizations are warning that a very large-scale humanitarian crisis is imminent.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, Linda.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Linda Gradstein speaking from Jerusalem.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
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