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Israeli planes attack Beirut power station

ISRAELI WARPLANES last night rocketed a Beirut power station and hit a Hizbollah guerrilla base in Baalbek in north-eastern Lebanon. Seven Lebanese and two Israelis were reported killed in the attacks. Israel also bombed a bridge linking southern Lebanon to the north.

Beirut was plunged into darkness as flames and smoke rose from the Jamhour power station, close to the Defence Ministry compound south-east of the capital. Baalbek is in an area under de facto Syrian army control. The raids marked a dangerous escalation of the low-intensity war Israel and the pro-Iranian Hizbollah have been waging for 14 years in southern Lebanon.

Hizbollah hit back with Katyusha rocket attacks on Kiryat Shmonah and Nahariya at the eastern and western ends respectively of the Israel border. Two homes were hit in Kiryat Shmonah, and Israeli television reported casualties.

A military spokesman in Tel Aviv said that the Beirut attack, the first on the Lebanese capital for three years, was in retaliation for a barrage of more than 25 Katyusha rockets fired by Hizbollah on Israeli towns and villages along the Galilee border earlier yesterday. Four Israeli civilians and one soldier were wounded and at least one house was wrecked. Thousands of families took refuge in shelters.

The spokesman said that Israel could no longer act with restraint in the face of "continuous provocations" by the Shia militia. These attacks, he added, were in "blatant violation" of the qualified truce that ended Israel's 1996 "Grapes of Wrath" offensive in southern Lebanon.

By hitting Beirut, the Israelis were serving notice on Lebanon and Syria that they could not exploit Hizbollah with impunity to further their diplomatic ends.