Silent danger lurks in the shadowy olive groves of Lebanon

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The Independent Online
In the darkness, all five Norwegian soldiers hold out their right hands, one on top of the other. "En for alle - alle for en," Lieutenant Vidar "Sims" Simensen mutters. "Alle mann tilbake." All for one and one for all - and we'll all come back together. I am surprised how seriously the men take this Alexandre Dumas routine - until the armoured vehicle in which we are entombed halts in the moonlight and we climb out on the mountainside. Until morning, we will not talk again. We will lie in wait along the infiltration trails and watch through our night-sight binoculars and prowl through the olive groves which, in the darkness, look like forests. Even the savage old dog Eddie, and his handler, Private Stian Kleppe, move like shadows.

It is not an easy United Nations patrol. The moon above the Litani river - deep inside Israel's south Lebanon occupation zone - moves in and out of the clouds; and as our eyes become accustomed to the dark, its sudden appearance almost dazzles us. From the blackness of the grave, we are bathed in a white phosphorescence, as if God has turned on a light-switch.

In this brilliance, I can see Private Tor Sandvik lying huddled beside his 11kg radio, whispering "Alpha One X-Ray Papa moving to Alpha One Lima." Papa is our patrol, Lima is a little sandbagged fort over the river half a mile away, but it will take us an hour to reach it.

Far over the hills to the north, beyond an abandoned Israeli compound, there comes the boom of heavy firing. We are lying only feet from the pale grey track through the olive grove, the trail the Hizbollah probably took when they mortared another Israeli fortress two weeks ago.

Lying quiet in a south Lebanese orchard beneath a fitful moon sounded pleasant enough back at the platoon's headquarters. But within seconds, the mosquitoes are shrieking in my ears. Any movement, even the silent swatting of these evil little aviators, is forbidden.

I am lying with my hands beside me, until I feel my fingers being criss- crossed by tiny feet. I cannot see the insects but they are quietly feeding on me. So that, I conclude was why Private Morton Haagenstad offered me leather gloves tonight. The hardy Fisk, of course, had turned down this eminently sensible proposal. To my left, I see Sims patting silently at his trousers where a scorpion is attacking him. I stuff my wounded hands inside my flak jacket. They will torment me for days.

Two helicopters fly far overhead. Later, we will hear one of them firing a heavy machine-gun into a wadi. But to our left, Eddie has pricked up his ears and is straining forward in the darkness. I like Eddie. When he is angry - which is often - he eats rocks, which is why his teeth have been ground down over eight years patrolling with the Norwegians. But he keeps the platoon's silence discipline, only occasionally allowing a paw to scrape the ground or panting softly in dog-like excitement. Sims points into the olive grove.

A tiny light flickers in the far away village of Bourhoz - 35 Druze souls living in a battlefield - and Sims thinks as I am thinking (so he tells me later), that the village boy who was beaten up by the Hizbollah last year, is moving. The UN soldiers call him "Lightman".

Then I see another light, far away in the abandoned Israeli fort on the other side of the river. Sims believes the Israelis leave it on to give the impression that it is still occupied.

There is more distant firing, mortars this time, but Eddie concentrates on the olive grove. I hear rustling. Sims has reminded us at our briefing that the Hizbollah could not maintain silence at night. Nor could the Israelis if they too were in the UN zone. Sims' job is to keep both of them out. We cannot move off our own "blue line" path - the only route cleared of mines - but we can shout "Halt - United Nations" (the phrase, of course, that has sent many a quivering Serb to his knees) and hope that whoever is there goes away. Five rifles point into the darkness in case it does not. All the while, the firing continues over the mountains. Then I see Sims turning to the soldiers. The sound has grown fainter. Eddie is back on his haunches. We will never know what was out there in the olive grove.

Two am. The moon has fallen behind the mountains. High on our perch at Alpha One Lima, we stare down into the valley of the Litani through our night-sights. I can see trees and clearings and tracks through the undergrowth, the trails used by Hizbollah and Israelis alike. A rock skids down the opposite side of the valley. "Two pigs," Sims whispers. "I saw them." Wild boars roam southern Lebanon at night. They also, according to the locals, eat bodies.

The hours pass wretchedly. The insects feed. And the mosquitoes are now air-raiding our faces every 30 seconds. Sweat is creeping under my flak jacket and down my arms. At four am, Sims decides to end his patrol by taking a closer look at the terrain. He calls up mortar illuminations and the Norwegians to the south shoot three flares high above us, the charges popping in the darkness. They are fired too far to the east and one of them sets off a brush fire on the other side of the river.

Sims points his own flare pistol over the abyss and a snake of red light hisses from our fortress. Eddie snarls in rage and I peer down to the river through my night-sights. Every tree branch, every twig is bathed in our Olympian light. And not a movement do we see. But looking north, Sims notices that the light in the "abandoned" Israeli fort has been turned off. "Do you think it's abandoned now?" he asks in my ear. No, I do not think so. As our last flares die in the darkness below, the Israeli light flickers on again. We have not been alone.

Israel retaliates for Hizbollah attack

Sidon, Lebanon - Israel's air force launched its biggest attack into Lebanon for 16 months yesterday in retaliation for a Hizbollah rocket barrage against the Jewish state.

Warplanes blasted a power line feeding south Lebanon's largest city and Hizbollah bases west of the border with Syria, and dropped bombs near a Lebanese Army position.

The three strikes, in the space of two hours, added to a spiral of violence that began on Monday and has pushed to the brink of collapse a 1996 agreement not to target civilians on the last active Arab-Israeli front line.

The attacks were accompanied by tough talk on both sides of the border that has left many Lebanese in the south bracing for another cycle of bloodshed.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri accused Israel of fuelling instability in the region while his Defence Minister described the air raids as "terrorist" acts.

Nazih Nakouzi