The Israeli assassination of a leading Hizbollah official in southern Lebanon provoked reprisal and counter-reprisal across the Israeli frontier last night, as Hizbollah guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets into Galilee and Israeli planes made six air raids on Lebanon. In the worst day of violence in the south of the country this year, an Israeli soldier was killed when an ambush he was setting up for Hizbollah gunmen was ambushed by the Hizbollah. Another Israeli was wounded.
The Israelis, whose gunboats have been blockading 20 miles of Lebanese coastline for the past six weeks, must have known that their attack on Rida Yassin would provoke a day of fighting; the Hizbollah has always responded to such assassinations with Katyusha fire into Galilee. But the guerrillas clearly never imagined that the Israelis would stage a repeat performance of their assassination of the Hizbollah leader, Sayed Abbas Moussawi, just over three years ago. Sayed Moussawi's car was ambushed by a missile-firing helicopter - which is just what happened to Rida Yassin yesterday.
Driving before dawn on a narrow road near Dirdghaya east of Tyre, he could not have known that two Israeli Cobra helicopter gunships were following. He may never have known what happened when the pilots fired the radar- guided missiles - believed to be American Hellfires. One exploded inside the vehicle, burning Yassin and an aide alive, while the other set fire to trees and bushes, initially hindering rescue workers.
Within hours, Israeli jets commenced bombing Hizbollah-controlled villages in the Iqlim el-Tuffah district east of Sidon - the scene of hundreds of Israeli air raids over the past five years - while four more helicopters airlifted 50 Israeli soldiers into artillery positions of the Israeli- commanded "South Lebanon Army" militia. A fierce bombardment of eight villages left at least three Hizbollah wounded. At midday, a squad of Israeli troops flown into the village of Sojod were attempting to set up an ambush inside their occupation zone when they were surprised by the men they were hunting and forced into a fire fight. One Israeli was killed.
By dusk came the inevitable Hizbollah counter-attack, withKatyusha rockets falling in Galilee, killing one Israeli and wounding six, security sources said. The bombardment seemed certain to prolong the fighting as Israelis retaliate for the Hizbollah retaliation. Abbas Moussawi's assassination set off a week of cross-border bombardments and the killing of Rida Yassin is likely to mean at least another day of fighting.
Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, flew into Beirut yesterday to discuss the Middle East "peace process" with the Lebanese government. He promised that Russia would try to "brush aside" obstacles facing Syrian- Israeli peace talks and insisted that difficulties in Middle East negotiations "require an active Russian participation to push them forward".
On the fighting in the south, he took the line usually adopted by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher: that the bloodshed should accelerate efforts towards peace. This odd policy - based on the principle that peace gets closer the greater the numbers killed - has always annoyed the Lebanese government, which believes that Israel's strategy is to punish Lebanon for not making a separate peace.
As for the Americans, they routinely call "on all sides to exercise restraint" whenever fighting in southern Lebanon appears to be out of control. There seemed little doubt that the Americans would be saying the same thing again very soon.