JERUSALEM — Four guerrillas from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah organization died in a clash with Israeli and allied forces in southern Lebanon on Wednesday as 1,200 to 1,500 Israeli troops continued their search for two comrades captured in a guerrilla ambush on Monday, the military command said in Tel Aviv.
The Israelis conducted house-to-house searches in a dozen villages, arresting at least 12 residents and confiscating a large quantity of weapons despite a threat by the Islamic Resistance movement that it would execute one of the captured soldiers if the Israeli forces were not withdrawn by 2 p.m. Wednesday, 24 hours after the threat was made.
On Wednesday night, an anonymous caller told various media offices in Beirut that the Islamic Resistance, an alliance of fundamentalist Shia Muslims, had killed one of its two Israeli captives.
"In honoring the promise which we made earlier to our kinfolk and our nation, the Islamic Resistance executed one of the two Israeli hostages at exactly 2100 (9 p.m.) tonight," Beirut radio quoted the guerrilla statement as saying. The hostage was not identified.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the United Nations' peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon said that the U.N. force has become "very, very worried about a possible escalation" of the fighting.
The relatively moderate Shia Muslim organization Amal, which predominates in the region and which has so far been "very, very restrained," has mobilized its forces and is coming under "severe pressure" to resist the Israeli action, U.N. spokesman Timur Goksel said.
"Today there were some close calls," Goksel added. "We don't know how long this can be kept under control." Two Israeli soldiers, identified as Pvts. Yossi Fink and Rahamim Sheikh, were captured Monday when guerrillas ambushed a three-car convoy traveling near the village of Beit Yahoun, about five miles north of the international border and within what Israel has proclaimed its "security zone" in southern Lebanon.
2 Militiamen Killed
Two members of the Israeli-backed, largely Christian militia known as the South Lebanon Army were killed in the same ambush.
On Tuesday, the Islamic Resistance said the captives had been moved to a "safe location, well beyond Israel's reach," where they are being treated for wounds suffered in the attack.
The guerrilla statement added that one would be killed unless the "Zionist forces . . . withdraw from all the villages they have targeted in their latest invasion."
Israeli military sources said that despite the statement, they believe that the guerrillas may have been unable to move their captives quickly enough and that the military sweep that began within minutes of Monday's ambush has trapped them in the south.
Hundreds of Israeli troops backed by helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers have kept much of the region south of the Litani River sealed off from the rest of the country since Monday afternoon.
A Second Search
Ten of the 12 villages north of the security zone that Israeli forces entered Wednesday were being searched for the second time, U.N. spokesman Goksel said.
The only serious clash occurred in Haris, a Shia Muslim village about three miles northwest of the spot where the convoy was ambushed on Monday, U.N. and Israeli military sources agreed.
An Israeli army spokesman said that four guerrillas of the Hezbollah (Party of God) organization, a radical Shia group, opened fire on a combined Israeli and South Lebanon Army patrol near the village. The patrol returned the fire, killing all four attackers, according to the army.
Goksel said that two of the men who opened fire on the patrol from a house were killed by answering tank fire. He said that it was unclear how the other two died and that there were no U.N. observers in the village at the time.
Total of 47 Arrested
Goksel said at least a dozen villagers were arrested in Wednesday's searches, bringing the total after three days of the operation to at least 47.
On Tuesday, an Israeli seaman was killed by gunfire from shore as his naval patrol boat kept watch on the main coastal road near Tyre.
Israeli military sources said the troops are taking advantage of the search to capture some of the weapons caches that have been deposited in the south since Israel withdrew most of its forces from the region last June.
Israel radio reported Wednesday that searchers had found Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missiles and explosives.
2 Guerrillas in Custody
The military command previously announced that among those arrested are two guerrillas who participated in Monday's ambush.
Israel has denied that the current sweep is part of an effort to re-invade Lebanon or to enlarge its security zone in the south.