JERUSALEM — Hundreds of Israeli troops supported by helicopters and armored vehicles poured across the border into Lebanon in an apparently unsuccessful search for two Israeli soldiers captured in a guerrilla ambush, Israeli and U.N. military sources said Monday.
The Syrian-supported National Resistance Front, an umbrella group opposed to continued Israeli control over a security zone in south Lebanon, claimed responsibility for seizing the two men. It said it will soon disclose its demands for their release.
The Israeli military command in Tel Aviv said that two members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia were killed in the ambush and that another apparently was captured along with the Israelis. Early today, Israel radio said that, contrary to earlier reports, no militiaman had been taken captive.
It was believed to be the first time since Israel withdrew most of its forces from Lebanon last June that any of its troops were taken captive there.
Over the weekend, Muslim extremists kidnaped three Lebanese Jews in Beirut, saying they were Israeli spies. The body of one of the three, identified as Ibrahim Benesti, was found 12 hours later in mostly Muslim West Beirut. Beirut police sources said the body showed signs of torture.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir vowed Monday that Israel will find a way to punish those responsible for that killing.
The Israeli military command said Monday's incident in southern Lebanon occurred shortly after noon, when a convoy of three cars carrying personnel of the South Lebanon Army and the Israel Defense Forces came under fire on the road between Bint Jbeil and Beit Yahoun.
Within Security Zone
The area is within the Israeli security zone, which extends up to 10 miles from the Israeli border into Lebanon and stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Syrian border.
An army spokesman said he was not sure whether the Israelis were in uniform at the time of the attack.
According to the Israeli account, the first of the three vehicles passed the ambush point without incident, but the second was rocked by a bomb that killed the two Lebanese. An Israeli passenger, identified as an education officer, escaped without injury.
The military command said the Lebanese driver and two Israeli soldiers in the third car were taken captive and driven north in a black sedan toward the Shia Muslim village of Chaqra. It was not clear how the education officer managed to escape capture.
500 Troops Deployed
The military command confirmed that it mounted a rescue attempt "by land, sea and air" but apparently without success.
Israel radio reported this morning that two Shia Muslim guerrillas who were involved in the attack were captured, along with some of their weapons. Hundreds of residents of the Shia villages in the area were reported fleeing north in fear of Israeli retaliation for the ambush.
U.N. sources said that about 500 Israeli troops swept through at least five Shia Muslim villages in the area looking for the prisoners and their captors.
Beirut state radio and Israeli television reported that Israeli troops engaged guerrillas in combat in at least one village, and a U.N. official said gunships strafed suspected guerrilla hideouts, according to wire-service reports from Lebanon.
On Monday night, a man described as one of the captured Israelis, his head bandaged, was shown on Lebanese television.
Believed in Bekaa Valley
Brig. Gen. Schlomo Illya, former commander of Israeli troops in the security zone, said in an Israeli television interview that the captives probably were taken to the Bekaa Valley, where most of the extremist groups operating in Lebanon have operational bases.
A broad cross-section of groups, including the relatively moderate Shia Muslim Amal organization, have vowed to fight on until Israel dismantles the security zone and disbands the South Lebanon Army, which they regard as an Israeli proxy force.
Israel will not disclose the number of troops it keeps in the security zone, but U.N. peacekeeping forces in south Lebanon estimate the total at several hundred. They say the Israeli presence includes dozens of permanent positions used for intelligence gathering and as staging areas.
Israel says the zone is necessary to help protect its northern settlements from cross-border attack.