JERUSALEM — an unusual Sabbath attack that apparently caught their targets off guard, Israeli warplanes pummeled Palestinian guerrilla bases near Sidon in southern Lebanon on Saturday, killing at least 41 and wounding 60 in what Israel radio termed their deadliest raid since 1982.
The attack was the air force's 22nd this year in Lebanon but the first in nearly a month. An Israeli military announcement said the targets were headquarters for what it called "terrorist organizations which planned to embark on attacks against Israel in the future."
A Lebanese police spokesman quoted by news agencies said that three of the buildings struck were used by Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a fourth belonged to George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
All the buildings were on the outskirts of two large Palestinian refugee camps in the Sidon area, which have been frequent targets of Israeli air strikes.
The Lebanese police spokesman said most of the casualties in Saturday's attack occurred when the Israeli warplanes returned for a second sortie while Palestinian guerrillas were evacuating victims of the initial attack. In all, according to the Lebanese account, at least four Israeli jets carried out three separate, low-level raids over a period of about 10 minutes starting at 10:20 a.m. local time.
Smoke, Wailing Sirens
Reports from Lebanon described a thick cloud of black smoke hanging over the Ein el Hilwa refugee camp, which is home to 60,000 Palestinians. Ambulances with their sirens wailing evacuated victims to four hospitals in Sidon, which is 25 miles south of Beirut along the Mediterranean coast.
Special cars crisscrossed the area with their occupants pleading over loudspeakers for blood donations.
According to one unconfirmed report, the Palestinians fired at least four heat-seeking, Soviet-built, surface-to-air missiles at the attackers. However, the Israeli military reported that all its aircraft returned safely to base and said the pilots reported "accurate hits on their targets."
Israel has declared a strip of Lebanese territory extending up to 10 miles north of the international border as a "security zone" to protect against attacks on its northernmost towns and settlements. An Israeli-financed militia, the South Lebanon Army, patrols the zone, backed by several hundred Israeli troops.
Groups made up mostly of Lebanese Shia Muslims, such as the Amal militia and Hezbollah (Party of God), are fighting to rid the area of both Israeli troops and their Lebanese proxies.
Israel invaded Lebanon in June, 1982, to destroy a virtual Palestinian state-within-a-state in the south of that country, and at first, the local Shia Muslim population welcomed the move. But when the Israelis stayed on, even after evicting most Palestinian fighters from Lebanon, the Lebanese Shias turned against them.
According to Lebanese sources, the Israelis have killed 56 people and wounded 190 in 21 previous air raids this year in Lebanon.