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Israel Shells Hezbollah After Rocket Attack : Mideast: Guerrilla assault had killed one Israeli and injured nine, further escalating conflict in southern Lebanon.

April 01, 1995|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Israel's artillery pounded southern Lebanon on Friday night after Shiite Muslim guerrillas rocketed the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, killing one and wounding nine.

A 17-year-old Israeli who had been jogging on the beach in Nahariya was killed when a Soviet-made Katyusha rocket exploded near him, Israel Radio reported. The army reportedly ordered residents of Nahariya and another northern town, Shlomi, to spend the night in bomb shelters.

"If the Hezbollah people will try to fight on the backs of civilians in the north, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) will teach them that you do not fight wars on the backs of the people," warned Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, head of Israel's northern command.

Reports from Lebanon said Israel and its Lebanese militia ally, the South Lebanon Army, or SLA, fired hundreds of artillery shells into Shiite villages controlled by Hezbollah (Party of God). Israeli helicopter gunships also strafed villages after nightfall. Hezbollah reported that at least half a dozen people were wounded in the attacks.

It was a serious escalation of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese group that has vowed to oust Israel from its self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon.

Angry Israeli officials on Friday accused Hezbollah of violating an agreement brokered in 1993 by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher that laid down ground rules for the low-level war Israel and Hezbollah have fought since 1985, when Israel carved out the security zone as it pulled out most of its troops after having invaded Lebanon in June, 1982.

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Christopher had intervened after Israel mounted a massive, weeklong assault on southern Lebanon in July, 1993, aimed at breaking Hezbollah's control over villages there after a series of Katyusha attacks in northern Israel. The agreement he reached between Israel and Hezbollah specified that Hezbollah would not fire Katyushas across the border.

"This Katyusha attack is a flagrant violation of the understandings that were reached at the end of Operation Accountability," charged Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Israel's housing minister.

Christopher was on the phone again Friday, contacting Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian officials in an effort to stop the latest fighting, Israel radio reported. Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to Washington, met with both his Syrian counterpart, Walid Moualem, and senior State Department officials in an effort to keep the fighting from escalating.

Rabinovich and Moualem are engaged in delicate negotiations on an Israeli-Syrian security accord on the Golan Heights that reportedly had been progressing before Friday's fighting erupted. Syria, with about 30,000 troops in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, is highly sensitive to any upsurge in fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

The fighting erupted as Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev became the first Russian foreign minister to visit Lebanon since 1956. He spent several hours in Beirut, after stopping in Damascus to talk with Syrian President Hafez Assad and other senior Syrian officials.

Kozyrev's tour was billed by the Russians as an effort to speed negotiations between Israel and Syria. He will visit Israel and the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip over the weekend.

Russia, the nominal co-sponsor with the United States of Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, is trying to reassert itself as a Mideast player. But Moscow has little leverage with Israel or with Syria, once a Russian client. For months, only the United States has played a visible role as a broker between Israel and the Arabs, with Christopher making 11 trips to the region to try to secure an Israeli-Syrian accord.

The explosion of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah could only embarrass Kozyrev because it illustrates how little influence Russia has with any of the parties in the conflict.

Hezbollah's Katyusha attack began after an Israeli helicopter gunship reportedly fired a surface-to-ground missile into a Mercedes-Benz as it left the village of Derdghaiya a few miles east of Tyre, Lebanon's southernmost port. A senior Hezbollah official was killed in the missile attack.

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Security sources in southern Lebanon said Ruda Yassin, 48, was one of the top 10 Hezbollah officials in the south. Israel periodically targets Hezbollah leaders. It has kidnaped two clerics identified with Hezbollah. In 1991, Israel killed Sheik Abbas Mussawi, Hezbollah's secretary general, by rocketing his car. His wife and son were also killed in that attack.

Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah escalated late last year, with Hezbollah mounting ever-bolder attacks on Israeli and SLA outposts in what Israel said was an effort to destroy the militia.

Israel has about 1,000 troops in the security zone, who jointly patrol with about 3,500 SLA militia. The Israelis say they will not withdraw from the zone until the Lebanese government disarms Hezbollah and demonstrates a willingness and ability to prevent attacks on northern Israel.

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