Israeli warplanes and gunboats bombard South Lebanon in new wave of attacks

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Israel's warplanes and gunboats pounded south Lebanon yesterday amid the worst escalation of hostilities in the region since Israel infuriated the Arab world by bombing three Lebanese power stations more than a month ago.

It was the third successive day of Israeli air raids on targets in Lebanon during which the rules of engagement have been broken by both sides. Yesterday's raids came after Israel claimed that Hizbollah guerrillas had deliberately fired mortars over the Israeli border, in violation of a four-year-old agreement. Hizbollah, the Party of God, had stepped up its mortar and rocket attacks after a young boy was killed on Monday by a shell fired by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army - also in violation of the same rules.

Irked by last weekend's meeting in Beirut of the 22-nation Arab League - and the full-blooded condemnation of Israel's conduct that emanated from it - the Israelis havemounted waves of air raids and artillery attacks in the last 72 hours, some of which have been outside its occupation zone. Yesterday its jets bombed Zawtar village, near Tyre, and - according to UN peacekeepers - an Israeli gunboat fired five shells into another village, Mansouri. On Monday, in a departure from recent tactics, Israel jets bombed two armed Palestinian camps near the Syrian border. This appears to be in reply to an Arab League warning that Palestinian militant groups in Lebanon could resume attacks on Israel if Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdraws his troops without a security agreement - including negotiations over the fate of the 360,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanese camps.

The Syrians have accused Israel of trying to snuff out any hope of reviving the peace talks, which collapsed in January.