Israelis quit talks as rocket toll rises

Hezbollah attack kills soldier, hopes of averting escalation

February 12, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A U.S.-arranged bid to prevent a dangerous escalation of fighting in south Lebanon collapsed yesterday after a guerrilla rocket attack killed an Israeli soldier, the seventh this year.

Immediately after the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak halted Israel's participation in a five-nation meeting intended to restrain the war inside Lebanon between the Jewish state and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

The meeting, the product of intense U.S. efforts after a week of rising violence in south Lebanon, was intended to reaffirm 1996 rules aimed at limiting casualties and damage from the fighting there.

Israeli warplanes launched strikes against guerrilla targets inside Lebanon again yesterday.

Yesterday's events appeared to shred the 1996 agreement and accelerate a new cycle of violence in Lebanon. Frustrated U.S. officials lashed out at Hezbollah and Syria, which controls much of what happens in Lebanon.

In the past week, Israel avenged the deaths of several soldiers by bombing three Lebanese power stations, plunging much of the country into darkness and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage, Lebanese officials said.

Officials in Israel threatened renewed attacks against Lebanon's infrastructure if more Israeli soldiers are killed. Barak said last night that Israel would retaliate "in the way that we see fit."

Hezbollah has killed two more Israeli soldiers since Israel's retaliation began, using what security sources say are more advanced and accurate rockets than it had previously.

The latest soldier killed was 19-year-old Sgt. Tsahi Itach, who was manning an outpost at the Crusader-era Beaufort Castle inside Israel's occupation zone north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The Lebanese guerrilla group, armed and inspired by Iran, has said that it aims to drive Israeli forces out of Lebanon, a goal backed by the Lebanese government.

In a statement yesterday, Hezbollah said it would continue its attacks "until the last Israeli soldier is expelled."

Barak, bowing to public fatigue with a two-decade conflict in Lebanon, has pledged to withdraw Israeli troops by July. But Israel doesn't want to be forced out. It would prefer to reach an agreement for a peaceful withdrawal.

Hezbollah's aim, according to U.S. officials, is to disrupt the Middle East peace process. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called the group "an enemy of peace" yesterday.

Hezbollah has refrained from firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel's towns and villages in the latest round of fighting. Such attacks in the past have killed and terrified Israeli civilians and prompted heavy Israeli retaliation.

But the recent deaths of young soldiers have dealt a heavy emotional blow to a country whose families are required to offer up their 18- to 21-year-old sons and daughters to national military service.

Americans have privately and publicly appealed to Syria, which allows Iranian arms to flow to Hezbollah, to restrain the guerrillas.

Syria, whose negotiations with Israel remain deadlocked, has shown little interest in clamping down on the Shiite militia.

U.S. officials blamed the collapse of yesterday's meeting on Hezbollah and held Syria partly responsible.

""We can only interpret this action as a deliberate attempt by Hezbollah to wreck the prospects for peace in the region," said State Department spokesman James Rubin.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "We expect Syria to be more effective in their influence and we expect restraint."

Americans have been working for weeks to restart Israeli-Syrian talks, which broke down over a Syrian demand that Israel commit to withdraw to the border that existed between the two countries before the June 1967 war. Israel has demanded that Syria first provide security assurances.

The most that U.S. Mideast diplomacy has achieved in recent weeks was to set up yesterday's meeting, bringing together a monitoring group consisting of the United States, France, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The group reviews alleged violations of the 1996 accord.

That agreement, the so-called April Understanding, calls for no rocket attacks on Israel proper, no firing at civilians or civilian targets, and no use of populated areas or electrical installations to launch attacks. It was brokered by former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher after a bloody flare-up in southern Lebanon in 1996 in which Hezbollah fired Katyushas into Israel and an Israeli attack killed a number of Lebanese civilians.

Israel said yesterday's fatal Hezbollah attack was the latest in which the guerrillas fired rockets from inside southern Lebanese villages in violation of the accord. Israel has been reluctant to strike at the source of the attacks, because this would endanger civilian lives.

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