Helicopter-borne Israeli commandos raided a Hezbollah bastion yesterday in what Lebanon called a "naked violation" of the UN-backed truce that halted Israel's 34-day war with the Shiite Muslim group.
Israel said the operation in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley aimed to disrupt weapons supplies to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran. Both countries deny arming the group.
Lebanese security sources said three Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in a dawn firefight with the Israeli commandos. The Israeli army said it had suffered one dead and two wounded.
"It is a naked violation of the cessation of hostilities declared by the Security Council," Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said.
Siniora said he had protested to visiting UN envoys who would take the matter up with Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The truce came into effect last Monday.
Commandos in two vehicles unloaded from helicopters were intercepted on their way to an office of a Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, the Lebanese sources said. The Israelis withdrew under cover of air strikes.
"Special forces carried out an operation to disrupt terror actions against Israel with an emphasis on the transfer of munitions from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah," Israel's army said.
The raid coincided with a Lebanese army drive to tighten its grip on the border with Syria. Thousands of troops deployed to block smuggling routes yesterday, security sources said.
Nevertheless, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said continued Hezbollah arms shipments and the absence of Lebanese and international troops on the border had made the raid necessary.
"The ceasefire in Lebanon is based on UN Security Council resolution 1701 which calls for a total international arms embargo on Hezbollah," said ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
Meanwhile, 50 French military engineers disembarked at a base in Naqoura in the south, the first reinforcements since the war.
The engineers were among 200 pledged by France, which has disappointed UN and US hopes that it would form the backbone of the expanded UN force to supervise the truce, support the Lebanese army and monitor the withdrawal of Israeli troops.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said yesterday that nations with military ties to Israel must not be part of the UN peacekeeping force that will police a truce along the Lebanon-Israel border.
``All that we ask for is that the countries which will send troops must not have military agreements with Israel and that troops be equal in numbers so that no country's troops dominates the other,'' Lahoud said in comments distributed by his office.
Yesterday Hezbollah began distributing cash to residents who lost their houses during Israel's month-long offensive.
"We started in Beirut's southern suburbs and then we will move to southern Lebanon," said Hezbollah official Haj Mohammed.
Families whose homes were destroyed in Beirut's southern suburbs received US$12,000 from Hezbollah officials operating out of a local school.