Israelis take to bunkers as Hizbollah rockets fall

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The Independent Online

Dozens of Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel yesterday, injuring up to 19 residents and setting fires in the streets of the area's small and increasingly frightened border communities.

Dozens of Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel yesterday, injuring up to 19 residents and setting fires in the streets of the area's small and increasingly frightened border communities.

In what many fear is a foretaste of the horrors to come if Israel unilaterally pulls out of south Lebanon, the Hizbollah attacks appeared to come in response to the deaths of two Lebanese women - an 80-year-old and her daughter - killed in their beds after a 155mm shell fired by Israeli troops, or their Lebanese proxies in the South Lebanon Army, hit their home on Wednesday night.

The attack also came after 14 Lebanese were injured on Wednesday by a bomb dropped from Israeli jet - which the Israeli military said the pilot released accidentally.

Although initial reports were unclear, it appeared that there were at least five waves of rockets, three of which hit Kiryat Shemona, a town of 22,000 inhabitants on the edge of the zone Israel has occupied in south Lebanon for more than two decades. Tens of thousands of Israelis in the border area were ordered into underground bunkers last night.

The other rockets reportedly landed in the vicinity of two smaller communities - Margaliyot and Khargiladi. Israel Army Radio reports said there were up to 19 injuries although this figure seemed likely to rise. It said a house had taken a direct hit.

The attacks come amid growing fears that the Middle East will descend into war if Israel withdraws from south Lebanon - as it says it will in July - without reaching an agreement with Syria. One western diplomatic source last night: "We are really frightened. Our fear is that we ain't seen nothing yet."

By chance, the attacks coincided with Israel's Defence Ministry confirming that it planned to deploy the world's first ever laser-based missile shield along its northern border, to guard against Katyusha rockets fired across the border into northern Israel.

Officials refused to comment on press reports that the $250m Tactical High Energy Laser system, jointly developed and partly funded by the United States, had no hope of being ready for the July deadline set by Israel's premier, Ehud Barak. Israel's Ma'arev newspaper claimed yesterday that the "Nautilus" shield - capable of blasting out scores of laser shots at ranges of up to six miles without reloading - would not be ready for many months. Israel had wanted it in place before the pull-out.

Although they have frequently come under rocket attacks before, yesterday's events sent a shudder through northern Israel, where the withdrawal from its so-called "security zone" is regarded with deep foreboding. There are fears that the Syrian-backed Hizbollah will seek to prevent Israel from ending its occupation until Mr Barak has agreed to return the Golan Heights to Damascus, by increasing its attacks across the border.

The latest incidents are also certain to add to Arab demands for international guarantees against Israeli aggression in Lebanon, such as attacks on civilians, in the event of a withdrawal.

These attacks are likely to have featured prominently in discussions yesterday between the UN's special envoy to the Middle East, Terje Larsen and the Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, and Prime Minister, Selim al-Hoss. So too is an Arab demand, reached in Syria at a meeting between the Saudi Arabian, Syrian and Egyptian foreign ministers, for the UN to take charge of security in south Lebanon after Israel leaves.

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