Israeli deaths in south Lebanon highest for 10 years

Beirut - Fighting between Muslim guerrillas and Israeli forces and their militia allies in south Lebanon killed 255 people in 1996, including 27 Israeli soldiers.

The soldiers' deaths make up the highest annual Israeli death toll on the last active Arab-Israeli frontline for more than a decade.

In 1995, 175 people died in south Lebanon violence including 23 Israeli soldiers. A year earlier, 21 Israelis were among 201 people killed there. The 1996 figure is the highest annual Israeli death toll in Lebanon since 1985, when 37 soldiers died.

The Jewish state pulled out the bulk of its 1982 invasion force that year and set up a border zone in the south to protect its northern areas from raids.

Besides the 27 Israeli casualties, the 1996 death toll includes 155 civilians and 54 guerrillas belonging mainly to the pro-Iranian Hizbollah and 19 militiamen of the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army (SLA).

In 1995, the guerrillas killed 33 SLA men while the Israelis and their militia allies killed 72 guerrillas.

The main reason behind the rise in the south Lebanon death figures last year was a 17-day Israeli blitz against Hizbollah in April that - according to Lebanese officials - killed at least 170 people, mostly civilians.

A US-brokered ceasefire agreement that ended the campaign, barred firing at civilians but allowed raids on the Israeli-held zone and gave both sides the right to self-defence.

Some 1,000 Israeli troops and the 3,000-strong SLA control a the 15- mile-wide zone in south Lebanon. They come under attack almost every day from Hizbollah and other groups.

Most of the Israeli and SLA casualties fall in roadside bomb attacks against their patrols or in coordinated guerrilla raids on patrols or posts using mortar bombs, rockets or machineguns.

Lebanon's official National News Agency has reported that, barring the April Hizbollah-Israel fighting, the guerrillas have launched a total of 365 attacks on the Israelis or SLA in 1996. The remainder of the 1996 casualties in Lebanon include 13 people killed in various explosions in the country and 132 killed in non-political murders. There were 103 non- political murders in Lebanon in 1995 and 120 a year earlier.

Israeli planes raided suspected guerrilla targets in south Lebanon on Tuesday night shortly after a guerrilla attack on two Israeli army posts.

A Hizbollah spokesman in Beirut said that the air attack targeted the Jabal Sojoud area of the Iqlim al-Toufah ridge used by the pro-Iranian guerrillas to wage attacks on Israeli forces occupying the border zone.

Sources with the SLA militia said the Israeli jets raided Iqlim al-Toufah after guerrillas attacked two Israeli posts on the edge of the Israeli- held zone. No one was hurt in the assaults, they said.