Israeli guns find Hizbollah an elusive target: Armoured column moves into southern Lebanon to attack guerrillas as Rabin threatens to make area uninhabitable

FOR Israel's big guns, blasting away in the most intensive co-ordinated air and artillery attacks on south and north Lebanon since Israel's ill-fated invasion in 1982, the 'target' remained elusive.

The Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed while touring the border to make southern Lebanon uninhabitable if guerrilla attacks continued. 'If there is not quiet here, there will be such 'unquiet' (in south Lebanon) that they won't be able to live there,' Rabin said.

Army radio said that a column of tanks and armoured personnel carriers was moving toward the security zone: 'For the first time tanks of the armoured corps are making their way north.'

Meanwhile, under Bear Mountain, on a stretch of desolate scrubland, in the enclave Israel calls its 'security zone', computerised intelligence about the enemy movements was coming in fast. Every two minutes, from 8am, Israeli 175mm artillery pieces ranged on the slopes of south Lebanon took aim, pounding the hills opposite.

Ze'ev, a 21-year-old lieutenant, said the mood at the battery, the biggest in the zone, was 'very good'. 'We have been waiting for a long time to be able to get back at the terrorists (the term used by Israelis for anyone who takes up arms against them) who have been killing our people. At last we have been given the green light,' he said.

But at 4pm the battery was told their 'targets' had scored another hit. Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militia of Lebanese Islamic militants, had fired a Katyusha rocket almost over their heads - it landed at Kiryat Shimona, the northern Israeli town, where two Israelis died in a similar attack on Sunday. For now the battery had no news of injuries but the soldiers yelped with anger and crawled atop their guns again.

'We know where the Katyusha was fired from,' said a reserve colonel staring across towards a small Lebanese village. Another volley of shells then thundered across the valley, stirring up a pall of smoke.

Israel has said that this time it is determined to win the war on its northern border by wiping out the Hizbollah and the Palestinian gunmen who inhabit the villages opposite the nine-mile wide area Israel occupied in south Lebanon as a buffer to protect its northern settlements.

But yesterday, despite two days of the most intensive bombardment there was no sign of victory.

Indeed, one Israeli soldier was killed yesterday in a Hizbollah attack on a position near the village of Braachit in south Lebanon with anti- tank rockets and mortar bombs, according to Lebanese security sources.

Yesterday began with an Israeli commando raid on a Palestinian militia training camp south of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. Israeli helicopter gunships and fighter planes continued to pound suspected ammunition dumps, supply lines and militia strongholds, and more than 1,000 Israeli shells were fired from artillery batteries towards targets in southern Lebanon. In reply, an estimated 67 Katyusha rockets had been fired at Israeli positions by late yesterday.

The town of Kiryat Shimona, always an easy target for the gunmen in south Lebanon, sprawled vulnerably on the hillside just five miles from the Israel's northern boundary. Throughout the day children and old people had been piled into buses and evacuated from the area. Other residents took shelter in bunkers, as Cobra helicopter gunships hovered overhead and jeeps patrolled the streets.

It was perhaps no comfort to these people that Israeli commanders were claiming to have a new strategy for putting an end to this intractable conflict. Army colonels explained yesterday that the first part of the plan, instituted with Sunday's air raids, had been to 'teach the Hizbollah a lesson' and to warn them off.

But yesterday's violence showed the lesson had been ignored. 'So today we have tried some new parts of the menu,' said one reserve colonel. 'We have a very rich menu.'

(Photograph omitted)