Fears rise of new cycle of Lebanese bloodshed

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Israel's long-expected blitz on Lebanon - a day of air attacks that hit Beirut for the first time in almost 14 years - had last night produced near-stalemate as the Hizbollah militia threatened retaliation against Israel.

Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, warned that the "vicious circle of violence" which left at least four dead and six wounded across Lebanon, could run out of control unless the Israelis, who said their raids were in retaliation to an earlier Hizbollah Katyusha attack, resolved to withdraw their occupation troops from the south of the country.

By evening, the Israeli assault seemed to have achieved little. Of the four known dead, three were civilians - one a 27-year-old woman killed in her car by a missile-firing Israeli helicopter near the Jiye power station - while an air raid on a supposed Hizbollah office outside the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek merely destroyed the municipal rubbish dump.

Despite Israel's much- trumpeted "destruction" of a "terrorist operational nerve- centre", the Hizbollah's headquarters in Beirut - the high-rise Majlis al- Shura council building - appeared untouched, although militiamen prevented reporters from moving less than 200 metres from the building.

The only military casualty was a Lebanese soldier manning a checkpoint south of the city of Tyre who was killed when the Israelis bombed an army anti-aircraft unit which had been firing at their helicopters.

The Israelis later warned the Lebanese army to "stay neutral" in their attack on Hizbollah but the Lebanese Minister of Defence, who declared the dead soldier a "martyr", ordered his brigades in southern Lebanon to fire at Israeli forces in the air or on the ground.

Presumably aware of the civilian casualties that would be wrought by the air assault, an Israeli army statement warned during the day that "civilians who live next to Hizbollah activist (sic) centres and homes may be hurt." But the radio station of Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia said electricity stations and water systems may be attacked, suggesting Israel's real intention was to threaten Lebanon's government with disaster unless it disarmed the "Islamic Resistance" movement in southern Lebanon.

But Mr Hariri said last night that attacks on Israelis inside southern Lebanon would continue unless Israel abided by UN Security Council resolution 425, to withdraw all Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.

Syria called the attacks "an act of aggression that would damage the Middle East peace process." What caused deep concern for Mr Hariri, however, was not so much the casualties but the assault on Beirut. Not since the hot August days of the Israeli siege of 1982 when their enemies were the PLO - now their new allies - have the Israelis attacked the Lebanese capital.

By the standards of 14 years ago, yesterday's missile-firing helicopters were a pin-prick, but they were intended - as both the Lebanese and the Syrians knew - to carry a message: further attacks on Beirut could be less restrained, more bloody and longer-lasting; so why don't the Lebanese and Syrian governments disarm the Hizbollah who are causing so many casualties among Israel's occupation troops in the south? As Mr Hariri made clear last night, neither Beirut nor Damascus planned any such action.

In 1993, after Israel responded to the killing of eight occupation soldiers with an air bombardment that slaughtered 123 Lebanese civilians, an agreement brokered by the US and Syria between Israel and the Hizbollah stipulated that neither side would attack the other's civilians unless the other did so first. Last month, the Israelis apologised for killing two young civilian men in the village of Yater for fear that the Hizbollah might fire Katyusha rockets over the border. Last weekend, a boy was killed by a bomb in the neighbouring village of Bradchit; Hizbollah's belief that the explosives were command-detonated by the Israelis prompted the Katyusha attack which wounded 13 civilians in Galilee and provoked yesterday's counter- counter-retaliation by Israel.

The Lebanese and Syrians realise Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, is under pressure prior to the 29 May elections, to show he can tame the Hizbollah. But the militia's determination to go on fighting the Israelis inside Lebanon means the Israelis are likely to face retaliation in response to their own retaliation, a cycle of mutual revenge which, as Mr Hariri said, can become self-generating.

Hizbollah and security sources in southern Lebanon suggested last night that further Katyusha attacks would be made against Israel in response to today's raids. Rumours in Beirut spoke of a planned Israeli commando raid on the capital.

Crisis countdown

11 April - Israeli helicopter gunships blasted Hizbollah guerrilla targets in Beirut's southern suburbs yesterday, the first Israeli raid on the Lebanese capital in nearly 14 years.

Following are the main events in the latest round of violence between Lebanon's pro-Iranian Hizbollah (Party of God) and Israeli forces.

4 March - Hizbollah guerrillas kill four Israeli soldiers in Israel's south Lebanon occupation zone. One Hizbollah guerrilla killed.

10 March - One Israeli soldier killed and four wounded in Hizbollah bomb attack in occupation zone.

14 March - Five Israeli soldiers wounded in Hizbollah raid.

20 March - Hizbollah suicide bomber kills one Israeli soldier in attack near border with Israel.

30 March - Israelis shell south Lebanon villages killing two civilians. Hizbollah fires Katyusha rockets into northern Israel; no casualties.

8 April - Bomb blast kills Lebanese boy and wounds three people in a guerrilla-held south Lebanon village.

9 April - Hizbollah blames Israel for bomb blast and guerrillas fire Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, wounding 36 people.

10 April - One Israeli soldier killed, three wounded in Hizbollah shelling of their outpost in zone.