Hezbollah and Israel trade fire Civilians flee southern Lebanon

Beirut blockaded

6 die in ambulance attack

Peres says sweep against terrorists to go on as needed

April 14, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT -- Dodging artillery bombardments, a wave of civilians fled southern Lebanon yesterday as Israeli guns targeted villages and gunboats blockaded Beirut in an intensifying sweep against Islamic guerrillas.

Members of the Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Party of God militia, responded by firing more Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Thousands of Israeli civilians slept in bomb shelters, but Israeli commanders said the latest salvos caused no injuries.

Anti-aircraft fire arched over Beirut during the night in anticipation of an Israeli raid that did not materialize. Israeli planes fired on the city Thursday and Friday for the first time since 1982.

Earlier in the day, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired on an ambulance near the southern Lebanon city of Tyre, killing six civilians, including at least three children. Israeli Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, the army chief of staff, maintained that a Hezbollah guerrilla was also in the ambulance.

"It all happened in a second," said the ambulance driver, Abbas Mdeihli, who was treated for shoulder wounds. "I heard a wooshing sound. I was sucked out of the vehicle."

In Israel, Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak asserted that Israeli gunners knew the occupants of the van included Hezbollah guerrillas.

"The ambulance was moving in an area where Hezbollah was, from which Katyushas were fired only several hours earlier," he said at a press conference. "The ambulance hit in Tyre was to the best of our knowledge transporting a Hezbollah terrorist. Civilians were not supposed to be in that area."

Uri Dromi, the Israeli government spokesman, later acknowledged that the attack on the ambulance "is a very

regretful incident. But the battlefield is a very confused one."

Israel military officials said their forces were firing "between 100 and 150 shells" an hour, a bombardment criticized by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

"According to international humanitarian laws, the civilian population should not be considered a target, or be forced to be displaced," said Philippe Gaillard, head of the organization. "You have old people who have no means to leave their villages. They don't have cars or buses. They just have donkeys and a pair of feet."

Mr. Dromi, the Israeli spokesman, replied that "according to all the international laws we know, any country that is under threat of attack has the right to self-defense."

Israeli officials also said their country's navy was stopping ships to check them for weapons that might be destined for the Hezbollah forces.

The Lebanese army issued a statement saying, "Israeli gunboats are intercepting commercial ships heading to and from Beirut port within Lebanese territorial waters."

Lebanese forced to flee the south spoke with great anger about the latest clashes.

"Israel calls us terrorists. But look what they do to our children," said Abdulla Sa'ad, a vegetable merchant who brought 30 children, including 10 of his own, in a pickup truck from southern Lebanon to Beirut.

The Lebanese government lodged a formal protest about Israel's military actions with the United Nations Security Council and asked for an emergency meeting of the 22-nation Arab League. Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, also met in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez el Assad.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, has said Israel will continue the operation "as long as is necessary," and military officers in Israel said yesterday it may last two weeks.

Mr. Peres launched the operation, code-named "Grapes of Wrath," as he seeks a tougher image before national elections next month. He has vowed to stop what he calls "intolerable" rocket attacks by Hezbollah, which were carried out last week in retaliation for earlier Israeli shelling that killed two Lebanese civilians.

Yesterday, a Lebanese spokesman for Palestinian Islamic militants said they would renew suicide bomb attacks in Tel Aviv in support of Hezbollah. Similar threats have been made recently. Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, also threatened to use suicide bombers if Israel sent ground troops farther into Lebanon.

"This is a vicious circle," said Mr. Hariri. "The problem is not that Hezbollah is launching Katyushas. The problem is that Israel is occupying part of our country."

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982, and in 1985 withdrew to an occupied strip 2 to 9 miles wide, which it controls.

After an Israeli artillery and ground blitz in 1993 sent 300,000 Lebanese civilians fleeing and killed an estimated 130, an informal agreement was brokered in which Hezbollah and Israel each promised not to target civilians. A string of Hezbollah attacks against Israeli soldiers in the occupied zone this year prompted stronger Israeli retaliation and caused the agreement to crumble.

Lebanese families continued to flee their homes yesterday from more than 40 villages in southern Lebanon that Israel announced it would target. Thousands arrived in Beirut, putting additional pressure on the government, still trying to rebuild after 15 years of civil war.

"I left with no food, no blankets, no nothing. I just brought my six children and my wife," said Salim Suweif. "We have no one to help us."

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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