JERUSALEM -- The Israeli squeeze on Lebanon continued yesterday as Israeli artillery opened fire on the southern part of the country and Israeli gunships maintained their three-week blockade of nearly 50 miles of Lebanese coast.
Three Lebanese were killed in artillery bombardments that were aimed north of an Israeli-controlled strip in southern Lebanon, according to reports broadcast by state-run Israel Radio, which said the artillery was aimed at "terrorists."
The Israeli blockade includes the Mediterranean ports of Sidon, Tyre and Damour, just 12 miles south of Beirut. It has kept an estimated 1,800 fishermen close to shore and away from their fishing grounds.
The Israeli chief of staff, Amnon Shahak, yesterday described the navy action as only monitoring and controlling boat traffic. But an Israeli gunboat opened fire in the direction of fishermen Monday to keep them from going to sea.
Military officers have said they were trying to interdict ammunition smuggled to south Lebanon, or, alternately, that they are trying to force Lebanon to ease checkpoints for civilians traveling by land to and from the country's southernmost strip, the territory controlled by Israel.
Lebanon has angrily protested the action. Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri has called the blockade "political, military and economic terrorism."
In Israel, support for the blockade has been mixed. The Hebrew daily newspaper Ma'ariv yesterday called the action a "drastic escalation" and predicted the United Nations would become involved. "A maritime blockade is not a police action against Hezbollah" -- the anti-Israeli Lebanese guerrillas, the newspaper editorialized. "It is a blatant infringement of Lebanese sovereignty."
Israel has twice invaded Lebanon, in 1978 and 1982. It is engaged in constant skirmishes with the Hezbollah guerrillas, which periodically result in mortar-shelling of Israeli towns in northern Israel and Israeli bombardment of Lebanese towns.
Most of the fighting occurs in the strip of Lebanon controlled by Israel, however, and the naval blockade of the coastline is an unusual tactic.
Lebanese civilians go in and out of the Israeli-controlled zone, and Israel has complained that the Lebanese army has begun to harass the civilians. The blockade is an attempt to end that harassment, some Israeli officials have said.
Lebanese army officials defended the checkpoints yesterday, saying they were an attempt to stop "acts against security" and prevent infiltrations into Lebanon by Israeli agents.
Israel and its paid allies, the South Lebanon army, yesterday released 27 prisoners from the Khiam prison they operate in the Israeli-controlled strip.
The unusual release was "a humanitarian gesture" in recognition of the Muslim feast that marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, according to a statement released by the South Lebanon army.
The Khiam prison reportedly holds about 300 prisoners, many of whom have spent years in confinement without trial.