Soldiers killed in south Lebanon clashes

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The Independent Online


Four Israeli fighter-bombers circled ominously over Beirut yesterday evening as Lebanon waited to discover if Israel would retaliate for one of the most devastating attacks in many months on its occupation troops in the south of the country. Although overshadowed by the latest suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, the carefully laid double ambush - mounted by a joint Hizbollah-Palestinian guerrilla unit - left at least four Israelis dead, one of them a colonel, and wounded nine.

Israeli military helicopters were flying across the hills north of the Lebanese border last night, only a few miles from the scene of the attacks, which set off a firefight lasting several hours and left two Palestinians dead.

The ambush began along the electrified frontier wire separating the two countries when a three-man Palestinian squad - later identified as members of the "Islamic Palestinian Revolutionary Army" - opened fire with rifles on a civilian car containing Israeli soldiers who were driving towards the border from Israel.

One of the soldiers was killed instantly and another was wounded before dozens of Israeli troops poured across the border to search for the attackers with the aid of helicopters. Only a few hours later, the Israeli searchers were approaching the Lebanese village of Houle in armoured vehicles when Hizbollah militiamen set off a massive roadside bomb which blasted open one of the armoured carriers and killed three of the soldiers inside. In the aftermath, Israeli troops fired hundreds of illumination flares, one of which fell into a Lebanese home, wounding six civilians, three of them children.

It was the second recorded instance of collaboration between Hizbollah and a Palestinian Islamist group in southern Lebanon. The latter movement - which local security authorities believe is trained by Hizbollah members - was also responsible for the flight of a tiny single-seater aircraft over Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon two weeks ago, a journey which came to a sudden end when it was shot down by Israeli anti-aircraft fire. Lebanese troops seized two identical German-made wooden aircraft in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley in January, both in a building controlled by the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

There may therefore be sufficient linkage between Palestinian Islamists and Hizbollah to tempt the Israelis to spread any retaliation for the Hamas suicide bombings into Lebanon - even though Hamas was no more involved in the double attacks here than Hizbollah was in the Israeli bombings. Which is why the four jets circling Beirut last night troubled all who saw them.