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Israeli Retaliatory Strike Hits Beirut for First Time Since '82

By John Daniszewski and Marjorie Miller
Los Angeles Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon

In a reprisal attack that heightened fears about the search for peace in the Middle East, Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships Thursday struck at Hezbollah guerrillas across Lebanon, hitting Beirut for the first time in 14 years.

At least five people were killed and more than a dozen wounded by rockets from the attacking Israeli aircraft, according to Lebanese government and hospital officials. The raids began before dawn and continued until midday with Israeli forces using precision weapons to attack suspected Hezbollah sites in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon.

A Lebanese army outpost near Tyre was also hit, reportedly killing a Lebanese soldier. Israel said it fired on the regular troops after they had shot at the Israeli attackers.

Israel said the attacks were in response to the increased Hezbollah rocketing of its northern communities and farms. Tuesday, 36 people were wounded by a barrage of katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon into the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona.

"I hope they learned their lesson," Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared after the day of raids. In Tel Aviv, Israeli military officials warned that operations could continue for several more days.

Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak said the raids delivered a message: "Our policy is that no place in Lebanon will be an immune shelter for Hezbollah. We're going to hit wherever we find them."

The most dramatic Israeli strike Thursday was directed at a 10-story building in a densely populated southern suburb of Beirut. Israel said the first floor of the building was the headquarters and nerve center of Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite Muslim militia that opposes all peace negotiations with Israel and has vowed to battle Israel's occupation of what it calls a "security zone" in southern Lebanon.

In a dense warren of streets decorated with murals of black-robed mullahs and anti-Israeli "martyrs," Hezbollah fighters carrying automatic rifles and anti-tank weapons closed off roads leading to the damaged building in the Bir el-Abed neighborhood where many of the Hezbollah leaders live. Even Lebanese government officials were barred from seeing the effects of the strike.

Israeli officials were certain the attacks had hit their mark. "Nothing was missed, and the damage to neighboring facilities was minimal, if any. This is a great achievement," Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger, chief of the Israeli air force, said in Tel Aviv.

Hundreds of residents rushed for cover in basements after the attack on Beirut began. Others fled the predominantly Shiite Muslim slums by car or on foot, heading toward the city center. Ambulances, sirens wailing, raced to the area near Beirut International Airport, which was shut down for about an hour.

The sound of explosions brought back fearful memories to the people of Beirut, who suffered the ravages of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Since then, they have enjoyed a relative peace brought about by the deployment of 35,000 Syrian troops in the country and the creation of a government under Syrian auspices.

"They are angry and they are shocked," said Lebanese-American Fadi Alame. "Everything is completely in a standstill."

An administrator at Sahel General Hospital, Alame said the first crashing of bombs set off a panic, with passers-by racing for shelter. "We just heard an explosion and thought it was a car bomb or something."

The hospital's parking lot was rocked by an explosion. Windows in private houses along the road to the airport were broken and wrought-iron bars bent by the blast.

"I thought the building was going to fall down," said Haidar Mahaidan, 55, a fish merchant, who sheltered with his wife and eight children in a bedroom after hearing the blasts. All the windows on the ground floor were shattered.

Using aerial photographs and videotapes of the hits, Israeli officials made the case in Tel Aviv that they had executed successful strikes and had tried to limit civilian casualties. They accused Hezbollah of hiding behind civilians in Lebanon in its conflict with Israel.

Peres, who faces a close contest for re-election in May, denied political pressure played a role in the decision to act against Hezbollah. Israel's commitment to peace in the Middle East is unshaken but cannot "come at the expense of security," Peres said.