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Lebanese Muslim Guerrillas Attack Israeli Town, Killing 1

Army strikes back with helicopter assault on Hezbollah positions after mortar hits. Sharon reportedly maps further actions.

August 11, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Increasing tensions across the Israel-Lebanon border, Hezbollah fighters launched mortars into a northern Israeli town Sunday in an attack that killed an Israeli teenager and injured four other people.

Israel struck back within hours, dispatching helicopters to hit Hezbollah antiaircraft positions in the mountains of southern Lebanon. Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, described the operation as a "pinpoint, targeted response to the source of fire."

The attack on the northern town of Shlomi on Sunday afternoon resulted in the first Israeli civilian death in such an incident since Israel withdrew its soldiers from southern Lebanon three years ago, the military said.

Since the pullout, guerrillas from Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Muslim group committed to Israel's extinction, have filled the vacuum.

Israel accuses Syria and Lebanon of permitting Hezbollah's presence along the border. Gissin called for international pressure on the two countries to get them to curb the group's activities.

"If that is of no avail, then rest assured that Israel will know how to defend itself," Gissin said, adding that the counterstrike Sunday should serve as "a warning signal."

Sharon was reportedly huddling with security chiefs and top officials Sunday evening to map out further Israeli actions.

The northern frontier had been relatively quiet since January, despite some concern that Hezbollah might use the U.S.-led war with Iraq as cover to launch attacks. Such assaults did not materialize.

Israeli forces began bracing for some kind of attack after Hezbollah vowed to avenge the death of one of its operatives in Beirut on Aug. 2. The man, identified as Ali Hussein Saleh, was killed by a car bomb that Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Israeli officials have declined to comment on the incident.

Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers traded fire along the border on Friday. Since then, there have been three other flare-ups of violence, including the attacks on Sunday.

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Gillerman, lodged a sharply worded protest accusing Syria and Lebanon of violating the terms of the agreement under which Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000. Syria currently holds the presidency of the U.N. Security Council.

"Israel has no option but to take all steps needed to protect its citizens," Gillerman wrote.

Washington too has expressed concern to Syria and Lebanon about the "calculated and provocative escalation" by Hezbollah.

In a visit to Beirut in May, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged Lebanon to rein in the group and pressure it to disarm.

Israeli military intelligence estimates that Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God, has about 11,000 rockets and missiles capable of hitting well-populated Israeli cities such as Haifa on the western coast and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Intelligence sources say that Hezbollah guerrillas can fire up to 200 rockets almost simultaneously.

The shells that exploded in Shlomi on Sunday were 57-millimeter mortars, the Israeli army said, not the mobile Katyusha rockets that Hezbollah routinely used during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah claimed Israel's pullout in 2000 as a victory. Most of the group's attacks since then have been low-intensity strikes, apparently aimed more at harassing Israeli forces than igniting a full-scale conflict. In the last three years, three Israeli soldiers have been killed in shelling by Hezbollah, most recently in August of last year.

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