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Israel wreaks vengeance on Hizbollah camp

For hours, clouds of black smoke hung over the hot, brown mountain ridges. Delayed-action bombs went on exploding long after the raid. But the ambulances bouncing through the dust down the old smugglers' trail past Amshki, with their heavily bearded drivers and Hizbollah men clinging to the back doors, told their own story.

Hizbollah guerrillas careered up the same mud and stone track on Japanese motor cycles, the same cycles they use in their suicidal assaults on the Israeli army in southern Lebanon. But this time, it was the Israelis who had struck, and the Hizbollah were stunned.

In a Hizbollah office in Baalbek, I watched one of their officials reading the initial list of dead down the telephone line to his headquarters in Beirut. 'Mohamed Fadlallah from the Bekaa, Hussein from Beirut, four of the Bourji brothers from Beirut . . .' In all, he read out 19 names. By noon, the Hizbollah acknowledged 26. By nightfall, it seemed Israel had killed almost 50 Hizbollah recruits, some as young as 12, in its night raid on the guerrilla camp at Kawcab. Hizbollah members locked the gates of the Imam Khomeini hospital in Baalbek as shocked relatives crowded outside. The dead overwhelmed Baalbek's mortuaries.

It was not just the scale of their losses that astounded the Hizbollah, but the fact that the Israelis must have known that the guerrillas had packed their camp at Kawcab with 121 young men who were, yesterday morning, to have 'graduated' as recruits from the training camp - some of them no doubt destined to fight Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon. Hizbollah must have been betrayed, just as Mustafa Dirani, the Shia militia leader associated with them, was betrayed two weeks ago when Israeli troops landed by helicopter, kidnapped him from his home in the Bekaa Valley and flew off to Israel after being guided to their target.

'Two weeks ago, they made us cry,' a Hizbollah man called Hani said in a cramped office in Baalbek. 'Now they have made us cry again.' But the Hizbollah were not crying, just trying to come to terms with the most devastating blow struck against them by Israel. Their first response was a warning by their secretary-general, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, that 'Israel is not alone in having a long arm'. The second response was a salvo of Katyusha rockets, seven of which landed near the Israeli town of Nahariya without causing injuries.

Baalbek closed its shops in preparation for today's mass funeral while Syrian troops in the Bekaa manned anti-aircraft guns on the old Roman roads. Several of these guns - and Lebanese artillery batteries to the west - opened fire at 4am yesterday when Israeli Phantom jets, along with two rocket-firing helicopters, swept in from the Mediterranean, flew low over the Lebanon mountain range, over the Roman temples at Baalbek and bombed the training camp three miles from the Syrian border. In Bsharre, 25 miles away, people were shaken from their beds by the explosions.

Was this, as the Israelis claimed later, a raid without any special timing, carried out merely - in the words of the Israeli government spokesman - because 'any time is a good time to attack the Hizbollah'? Coming less than two weeks after the kidnapping of Mr Dirani - who for months in 1986 held the captured Israeli pilot Ron Arad - it can only embarrass Syria, under whose protection the Hizbollah function in Lebanon and whose 20,000 troops in the country are supposed to guarantee the Lebanese from attack.

President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, however, believes in patience under provocation, and there were no signs yesterday of Syrian retaliation. No Syrian troops were in the immediate area of the attack. At one point in the morning, a Syrian major telephoned the Hizbollah in Baalbek to ask where the training camp was. Kawcab was not on his map. His confusion was understandable; the scruffy village of shacks and scrapyards does not appear on any map in Lebanon. But it obviously appeared on maps in Israel.

The question now is: how 'long' is the Hizbollah's arm?