Israel on offensive after six soldiers die

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The Independent Online
Israel launched an intensive search-and-destroy operation in south Lebanon yesterday after the Shia Hizbollah militia killed six Israeli infantrymen and seriously wounded a seventh in an ambush in Israel's self- proclaimed South Lebanese security zone.

Lebanese security sources said the dawn ambush wiped out an Israeli patrol on a narrow road near the village of Aishiyeh. The guerrillas detonated a massive roadside bomb under the first of two patrolling armoured personnel carriers, then raked the Israelis with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire. Five members of the Golani infantry brigade were killed on the spot. A sixth died later of his wounds.

Israeli artillery shelled suspected guerrilla hideouts and infiltration trails in ravines near the attack, the sources said.

The escalation in this mini-war of attrition across Israel's last remaining "hot" frontier came as Israel tried to defuse Palestinian resentment at its wary implementation of the latest peace accord by advancing its evacuation of the seven biggest West Bank Arab towns.

The Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, announced after meeting the Palestine Liberation Organisation's leader, Yasser Arafat, on the edge of the Gaza Strip that Israeli troops would pull out of Jenin, the first and most northerly of the towns, on 25 October - three weeks earlier than planned.

Israel now aims to hand over six of the towns by the end of the year. Bethlehem, Mr Peres promised, would be under Palestinian control in time for Christmas - the first time that it has not been under Israeli occupation since 1967. Elections to an 82-member Palestinian legislative council are due by 22 January - before Israel completes its redeployment in Hebron, the seventh and most volatile of the towns, where 450 Jews live amid 100,000 Palestinians. Israeli forces will remain responsible for the security of the settlers.

Yesterday's ambush followed a similar attack last Thursday, which killed three soldiers. A total of 22 Israelis have now lost their lives in this fighting since the beginning of the year. A Hizbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah, boasted after the ambush that his men were in the advanced stages of a holy war against the Jewish state.

The Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Amnon Shahak, told reporters last night: "The Israel Defence Forces will hit Hizbollah wherever and whenever it feels it is right and it can be done. In the long war against Hizbollah, we have no limitations on our activities. Our units have been operating throughout the day in the area of the attacks. We shall continue these operations for some days."

General Shahak denied Lebanese reports that Israel was pouring heavy weapons into south Lebanon, as it did after a wave of attacks two years ago. For the most part, he said, Israel was still honouring the undertaking it gave then not to bomb Lebanese villages. A similar rash of deadly guerrilla attacks in July 1993 triggered a weeklong Israeli air, sea and artillery blitz against guerrillas in which 147 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, died.

Fearing an escalation, Arab residents of Ain El-Tineh, about a mile north of the occupied zone, closed shops and schools, and took refuge in underground shelters or fled north.

Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, cancelled all his engagements yesterday to consult his security advisers and has summoned an emergency Cabinet meeting tomorrow after the Jewish festival of Succot.