Identity of gunmen raises tension on Lebanese border

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The Independent Online

From which side of the border did they come? Even as the six Israeli civilians so savagely murdered yesterday afternoon still lay around their cars at Shlomi – scarcely three miles from the Lebanese frontier – the provenance of their killers was politically almost as important as their deaths.

If the three gunmen who opened fire on their cars around Kibbutz Metsuba were Palestinians from the West Bank, then the killings were part of the intifada. But if the gunmen came from Lebanon, a whole new front in the Israeli-Arab war would be reopened.

Even as Israeli helicopter gunships searched for a possible fourth assailant, UN troops were searching along the frontier wire on the Israeli side of the border for signs that the men came from Lebanon. They found none. Nor, initially at least, did the Israeli army.

Israeli police at first claimed that the gunmen were from Lebanon but Hizbollah, which only three days ago announced that it would assist the intifada by "deeds" rather than words, said it was not involved. So could Palestinians from one of the great refugee camp slums of Lebanon have made it across the wire?

"Given the humiliation and the anger right now, anything could happen," an official on the Lebanese side of the border commented. "But you've got to remember that it's a good road from the West Bank to the Lebanese border."

For days, the UN have been warning that a single incident could start a war along the frontier. Only 24 hours earlier, someone threw a grenade at an Israeli post in Shebaa farms, provoking Israeli mortar fire onto southern Lebanon. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah chairman, had admitted last week that two Lebanese arrested in Jordan had been trying to smuggle Hizbollah guns into the West Bank – a statement that chilled the Lebanese government, which has been saying the Iranian-supported militia is only involved in defending Lebanon from Israel.

At Kibbutz Metsuba, residents ran into bomb shelters when the shooting began as Israeli troops conducted a gun battle with the armed men. Two were killed but the third appeared to make his escape. Of the dead Israelis, one was a lorry driver, three were civilians in cars. At least six other Israeli civilians were wounded. It is the furthest north in Israel that the intifada has yet struck; always supposing the gunmen did not come from Lebanon.