Death comes calling again on a Crusader castle

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The Independent Online

We were just across the valley from Beaufort Castle when the mortar round landed. The 12th-century keep lay partly in shadow, the early spring mist rising around it, and there was just a low rumble of sound that spread across the hills. In southern Lebanon these days, that is just a heartbeat.

We were just across the valley from Beaufort Castle when the mortar round landed. The 12th-century keep lay partly in shadow, the early spring mist rising around it, and there was just a low rumble of sound that spread across the hills. In southern Lebanon these days, that is just a heartbeat.

So we were sitting in the little frontline village of Braadchit when the first Israeli jets flew over, a whisper, then a crash of sound that had the scraggy goats running across the road and the chickens squawking and old Ibrahim Basil looking up intently at the pale blue sky. "When we go out to our fields," he said, "we take our coffins with us."

If his fear seemed over-imaginative, it was given substance by the little red flash on my mobile phone. Yes, mobile phones are part of modern warfare. The Israeli soldiers across the valley use them to order hot food from their side of the border - or to detonate their roadside booby-traps. The Hizbollah use them to bring their guerrillas into the wadis - and, like the Israelis, to explode their roadside bombs. And we reporters, of course, use them too. "Watch out Robert," read the message box from a colleague in Beirut. "One Israeli dead at Beaufort Castle, one wounded. Israelis bombing near you."

The ground shook. The air pressure - how familiar it all becomes after so many years in this sad, beautiful land - changed imperceptibly, just a slight flattening of the wind. On the road beside us an old BMW with smoked-glass windows and a staring, bearded driver at the wheel turned the corner into the village so fast that the wheels spat stones into the chicken coop owned by the Farhat family near the mosque. I told Ibrahim Basil that an Israeli was dead and he shrugged his shoulders. "I left here when they bombed the power stations this week," he said. "I came back today to feed my donkeys and cows. Now I shall have to leave again."

Above Braadchit loomed the massive Israeli gun-platform which has dominated this Shia Muslim-Christian village for more than 20 years, its artillery silent for the past four hours, another fortress built by conquerors - crusaders from a different age but who, like the old French warriors of Beaufort, were losing their war in Lebanon. The Hizbollah claimed a direct hit on the castle and the Israelis, after trying to keep the news secret in their own country though military censorship, acknowledged their dead and wounded.

The seventh Israeli occupation soldier to die in Lebanon in just over two weeks. We all knew what that would mean. The UN radios up the road were crackling with "sitreps" and "alpha-ones" and map collaterals. "Some air activity," said a voice, possibly Irish. We couldn't see the jets in the high, bright sun but we felt the distant concussion of their bombs around the Zahrani river. The Hizbollah would have fired their mortar from the wadis there and the Israelis were trying - vainly as usual - to strike at their tormentors.

Across the ravines to the west of Braadchit another drama was now being played out. The five-power monitoring committee had gathered a few hours earlier at the UN's headquarters at Naqqoura, on the Mediterranean coast, to discuss the events of the past week.

Under the terms of the 1996 Understanding which created the committee, Israelis and Hizbollah can kill each other inside Lebanon. But neither side is allowed to fire at civilian targets or shoot across the border.

And since the Hizbollah had attacked only Israeli soldiers inside Lebanon and the Israelis had dropped their bombs on three massive civilian targets - Lebanese power stations - it promised to be an interesting meeting. Yet when the Syrian, Lebanese, French and American delegations turned up for the conference, they found the Israelis still closeted in their committee room. First the Americans went to ask them to join the meeting. Then the French. And then, as news arrived two hours later of the soldier's death at Beaufort, Brigadier-General Dany Arditi stood up and told the Americans: "I'm leaving."

So the Israelis walked out. Later Ephraim Sneh, the Israeli deputy defence minister, said that there was "no point" in talking when the Hizbollah were "busy breaking the rules". But of course the Hizbollah were - tragically for Israel - well within the rules of the April 1996 ceasefire, as the French were among the first, privately, to admit. It was the Israelis who had changed the rules. And it was Mr Sneh and the Israeli army chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, who said on Thursday that the "rules of war" in Lebanon were being changed.

So where is the next target in soft old Lebanon? We drove back yesterday evening through orchards that shone gold with oranges and glowed with almond blossom. Could the road bridge north of Tyre now be a target? The oil terminal at Zahrani, perhaps, with its ramshackle California-style villas above the tanks? Or the new motorway south of Beirut? The list seemed endless. Just like the list of Israeli casualties inside its occupation zone. As for Beaufort, it has seen it all before. Its inhabitants were massacred long ago. And a man once lay siege to it whose name was to become the terror of all invaders. Saladin.

The US blamed Hizbollah for the collapse of yesterday's truce meeting and said that Syria must do more to tame the guerrillas.

James Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said: "Unfortunately the meeting was deliberately disrupted by the casualties Israel suffered." ( Reuters)

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