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Israel Retaliates for Rockets Fired from Lebanon

By Daniel Williams
Los Angeles Times


Israel's tanks and troops surged into villages in southern Lebanon Thursday on what Israeli officials said was a mission to seek Shiite Muslim guerrillas and to destroy mobile Katyusha rocket launchers that have rained erratic fire on regions of far-northern Israel.

Although the maneuver escalated the fighting in the area and reminded observers of the events leading to the full-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israeli officials insisted that their military foray would be limited in time and scope.

"It is serious, but not very serious," Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Thursday of the incursion in which at least two Israeli soldiers and three guerrillas from the extremist Hezbollah movement were killed. "I think it will come to an end in a short time."

A senior military official described the campaign as "very limited," although some of the goals were wider than the publicly reported aim of removing the Katyusha threat.

Israel is sending a message to the Lebanese government to rein in Hezbollah, the military official said. Although the Lebanese army has been active in disarming local militias, Hezbollah has been left on its own to operate against Israel and the Israeli-controlled anti-guerrilla buffer zone in south Lebanon.

For most of three days previous to Thursday's attack, Lebanese militiamen had fired short-range Katyusha rockets into the Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon, as well as into northern Israel. Israel responded with tank and artillery barrages from the buffer area onto and around Shiite Muslim villages.

The latest round of Lebanese fighting began after Israel, in a weekend helicopter attack, assassinated Abbas Moussawi, a leader of Hezbollah, the militant, Iranian-backed Shiite nationalist group. His killing came after a Palestinian raid on an Israeli base inside Israel in which three Israeli soldiers were hacked to death in their sleep.

But the timing was a cover: Israel, officials have said, planned Moussawi's assassination as far back as December in frustration over broken negotiations aimed at recovering an Israeli air force prisoner held in Lebanon.

In Lebanon, thousands of Lebanese fled the villages of Yatar and Kafra, in advance of the Israeli thrust. They had been warned of intense artillery fire by Gen. Antoine Lahad, the leader of the South Lebanese Army, Israel's client Lebanese militia along the northern frontier.

United Nations peacekeeping troops tried to keep Israeli troops out of the villages. But Israeli bulldozers shoved aside U.N. vehicles blocking the road. "They didn't do anything to stop the Katyusha's," complained an Israeli military official. "Why should they stop us?"

Two U.N. soldiers, part of a group from Fiji in the U.N. force, were hit by guerrilla fire directed at the Israelis, Israeli officials said. Another two Fijians were wounded by Hezbollah gunmen who burst through a U.N. roadblock.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali protested the Israeli incursion and demanded that the Israelis and their militia allies withdraw immediately. Boutros-Ghali said that Under Secretary-General Marrack Goulding, the British diplomat in charge of U.N. peacekeeping operations, had delivered the secretary-general's protest and demand to Israeli's U.N. ambassador Yoram Aridor.

U.N. spokesman Francois Giuliani said that an Israeli column of 17 tanks and 22 armed personnel carriers had crossed the border at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Lebanon time. He said that the lightly-armed U.N. peacekeepers, without firing weapons, tried to stop the Israelis but were "pushed aside." He said the wounded Fijians were caught in the cross-fire between the Israel Defense Force and Hezbollah but "we do not know who fired the shots."

In comments Wednesday, Shamir had suggested the aim of Israeli action would be to eliminate the Shiite militants. "We will continue striking at Hezbollah until it quits Lebanon," he pledged. Suspicions were also raised that Israel might extend the buffer zone, which it controls with the aid of the South Lebanese Army. . Defense Minister Moshe Arens evaded press inquiries on the point, saying, "We will not put up with attacks of Katyusha rockets on the civilian population."

State Department officials said they did not expect the Israeli raid to disrupt the Middle East peace talks, set to resume in Washington on Monday.