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Syrian soldiers die as Israeli jets bomb Hizbollah bases: Attacks by gunmen in Lebanon prompt retaliatory raids

AFTER two weeks of threats, Israel yesterday moved into action in southern Lebanon, unleashing a series of air raids against enemy militia positions which left six Syrian soldiers and at least nine civilians dead. In reply to Israel, Hizbollah fired several Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli settlements, killing at least two Israeli civilians in Qiryat Shemona.

As Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, who is due in the region on a peace mission this week, called for 'restraint', Israeli helicopter gunships and bombers were last night continuing to attack suspected strongholds of Hizbollah and Palestinian militias. Mr Christopher has warned that escalation of violence in southern Lebanon could damage the faltering peace process.

Yesterday's raids were a direct retaliation by Israel against Lebanese gunmen who in recent weeks have escalated attacks against the Israeli army which, with its proxy force, the South Lebanon Army, occupies a nine-mile-wide strip of southern Lebanon. Israel accuses Iran of controlling Hizbollah's gunmen, and Syria of aiding them. Syria, Lebanon and local militiamen accuse Israel of illegal occupation of south Lebanon.

To avoid any serious military conflict with Syria, Israel is normally careful to avoid hits close to the bases in the Bekaa Valley housing 40,000 Syrian troops. Three Syrians were killed when Israeli planes - apparently accidentally - hit their position during a raid on a Hizbollah stronghold. Other Syrian troops then fired SAM-7s at the planes, which returned and attacked the source of fire, killing two more soldiers.

It is believed to be the first time Israeli forces have killed Syrians since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. There was no response from Damascus last night.

Israeli planes also hit Palestinian militia positions south of Beirut, before helicopter gunships targeted a series of villages and a Palestinian refugee camp.

As the raids were under way yesterday, the Israeli political and military establishment was eager to draw attention to the success of the operation. However, despite the publicity given to the attacks, there was clearly no desire to step up the operation by sending in ground forces. The air raid appears to have been chosen as the best way of appeasing Israeli public opinion, increasingly concerned at a lack of retaliation, while limiting Israeli casualties and containing international criticism. Palestinian and Hizbollah gunmen have killed six Israeli soldiers and wounded 11 this month, inflicting the heaviest casualty toll for nearly three years.

There was no firm evidence that the strikes had damaged Hizbollah operations. Civilian casualty figures were expected to rise.

In a typical cat-and-mouse sequence, Israel insisted after a first round of raids that it had no desire to escalate the attacks as long as the Hizbollah did not retaliate. Within hours Hizbollah had fired rockets towards northern Israel, and Israel attacked again.

Hizbollah said its forces had been fully mobilised, and last night northern Israel was bracing for another counter-offensive.

(Photograph omitted)