Israeli shells hit Lebanese school

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A shell fired from an Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon struck an elementary school, wounding 20 pupils and sending hundreds scurrying for cover, officials said.

A shell fired from an Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon struck an elementary school, wounding 20 pupils and sending hundreds scurrying for cover, officials said.

The attack heightened tensions on the last active Arab-Israeli war front a day after Syria and Israel, the key players in Lebanon, resumed negotiations in Washington. The talks are expected to increase the chances of a peaceful solution for southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah guerrillas threatened to retaliate for the shelling. "The resistance will not forget this innocent blood," warned Sheik Abdul-Majid Ammar, a senior Hezbollah official in southern Lebanon.

In the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemonah, underground shelters were opened as a precaution against possible Hezbollah reprisal and parents were asked to pick their children up from school.

Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a 120mm mortar shell hit the Arab Salim Public Elementary School. Two other shells fell in a nearby bush. Arab Salim is 7 kilometers (4.2 miles) northeast of the market town of Nabatiyeh.

"We heard the shelling but we did not care. This is part of our daily life in the south," Ali Yussef Ibrahim, 11, who suffered shrapnel wounds to various parts of his body, said at a hospital in Nabatiyeh.

The three-story school has been hit four times before, most recently last May. The school's only other casualties came in 1991, when seven students were wounded by shelling.

The 14 boys and six girls, aged nine to 15, were wounded by shrapnel. At least three were in serious condition with wounds to their heads and faces, said officials at the hospital. Others suffered cuts from shrapnel and glass shards.

The remaining 400 students were shepherded by teachers to sandbagged rooms that are used as shelters and later sent home.

"The class immediately broke up in panic amid the screams of the wounded and the frightened," said geography teacher Mohammed Farhat, who was instructing students about the five continents when the first two shells hit near the school. He then ordered the children to take cover before the third one impacted.

Debris, broken glass and books littered the classrooms. Small pieces of human flesh were splashed on a desk and blood stained the walls. Desks and chairs were turned overturned as fleeing pupils rushed for cover.

The Israeli army said its allied South Lebanon Army militia outposts came under guerrilla fire in the morning from a residential area of Arab Salim, "making it necessary to fire back at the sources of the fire," according to a spokesman in Jerusalem.

In the past, Israeli warplanes and artillery have pounded suspected guerrilla bases in a valley near Arab Salim. But the Israelis and the SLA as well as the guerrillas have generally tried to steer away from hitting civilians in compliance with a 1996 U.S.-brokered understanding.

President Emile Lahoud said the attack threatened to undermine the current Middle East peace efforts, his office said. Prime Minister Salim Hoss called on a multinational committee monitoring combat in southern Lebanon to convene to discuss Israel's "criminal aggression" against civilians. The committee of American, French, Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian representatives has sought in the past to contain hostilities.