Attack strangles Lebanon's rebirth

Middle East crisis: Israel continues to pound its northern neighbour as Washington diplomats attempt to broker ceasefire
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If anyone wants proof of the aims behind Israel's onslaught on Lebanon, they have only to drive along the broken road through the umbrella pines to the little village of Bselim. Just past the local monastery, the French and Swedish packing cases for the millions of dollars of new transformers still lie next to the smouldering wreckage of the power-station that had just been restored with foreign aid after its civil war damage. Bselim was a symbol of Lebanon's rebirth.

Until four Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers dived on it and - in less than three minutes - destroyed pounds 13m of equipment and cut Lebanon's power supply by up to a third for the next 18 months by firing 20 US-made laser-guided missiles into the plant. The 150-kilowatt transformers were still burning yesterday as Mohib Itani, director of Lebanon's generating board, the Electricite du Liban, walked with anger through the ruins.

"This is an act of sabotage," he said. "The Israelis want to bomb Lebanon back to the dark ages. No Hizbollah man has ever been here."

Mr Itani is right. Bselim lies in the Christian heartland of Lebanon, among a community which has often shown sympathy for Israel's cause and has no love for the Hizbollah. Israel claimed its attack on Monday was in retaliation for damage to "Israel's infrastructure" by Hizbollah rockets. In fact, Israel's infrastructure "damage" consisted of a broken power line to a single house in Galilee.

But the destruction of Bselim and the neighbouring sub-station at Jamhour has emasculated Lebanon's power supply. Mr Itani estimates total destruction, along with the bombing of electrical switching systems in the south and a third station in the Bekaa, as close to pounds 54m.

"Do you really think this was done because the Hizbollah have been firing Katyushas [rockets]?" he asked, picking up a twisted piece of American missile fuselage as the burning silicone oil licked at the incinerated transformers. Each of them was installed to convert the 150 kilovolt lines from Lebanon's two power stations at Zoukh and Jiye into 66 kilovolt transmission to sub-stations across the country. Two US-made missiles failed to explode and buried themselves instead deep in the earth and concrete around the station.

"This was done to attack Lebanon, to make us weak at the moment of our rebirth," Mr Itani said.

A gateman at the station was wounded by shrapnel as the rockets exploded, devastating the home of the local plant director, Sulieman Daher - one of the very few to realise how the Israelis knew what to hit.

"In their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, their soldiers broke through the gate and stole all the plans and maps of the transformer lines and switching systems," he said. "At the time, we didn't understand why they would ever want to take them away from us."

Whether the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, discussed the power-station attack with the Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, in Jerusalem yesterday is unknown. He certainly should have done; because Bselim had been newly restored with the help of a pounds 5m aid package - from France.