Hezbollah rockets, Israeli retaliation escalate border war

Israeli planes strike Lebanese guerrillas, Beirut power stations

May 05, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli warplanes bombed two power stations and other targets in Lebanon early today after Hezbollah guerrillas fired dozens of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel yesterday, killing a 24-year-old soldier and wounding 27 civilians.

The three waves of retaliatory airstrikes, which knocked out power in the Beirut area, marked the second time this year that Israel has hit targets affecting Lebanon's civilian population. An earlier attack on power stations set off a wave of anger in the Arab world.

In an apparent warning to Syria, which controls Lebanon, Israel also struck the Beirut-Damascus highway near a building used by Syrian intelligence, the army said.

The Hezbollah attack and Israeli counterattack marked an escalation of the border war two months before Israel intends to withdraw its forces from its occupation zone in southern Lebanon.

At least five missiles exploded near northern Beirut's Bsaleem power station, one of three plants serving the capital. Large parts of the city and northern suburbs were plunged into darkness.

The Israeli raid came hours after Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke of retaliation for yesterday's rocket attack, which began before dusk while many people in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona were still outside. Barak said Israeli response would be harsh and sustained and that residents along the border might have to spend a long time in bomb shelters. During a visit to Kiryat Shemona, Barak said Israel could not tolerate rocket attacks on its cities.

The Hezbollah rockets set vehicles ablaze in a parking lot, damaged buildings and forced tens of thousands into bomb shelters. Television showed a man with bandaged head and bleeding leg being wheeled into a hospital, women, children and soldiers running for cover, and crying youngsters entering cellars.

The guerrillas said the attack was in retaliation for Israeli strikes against civilians in Lebanon. Earlier yesterday, a shell fired by Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, killed an 82-year-old woman and her daughter. On Wednesday, an Israeli bomb wounded about a dozen people. Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim movement and militia, says it is fighting to end Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel has announced that it will withdraw by July.

This week's heightened fighting occurred despite steps aimed at making sure the withdrawal occurs on time. This week, Israel began to dismantle outposts in Southern Lebanon and shift soldiers to other positions. A United Nations envoy, Terje Larsen, was in the region to work out plans for moving 6,000 or more U.N. peacekeepers into the 9-mile-wide zone that Israel plans to vacate.

And in an important move yesterday, Syria gave its support to the U.N. deployment. Because Syria controls the Lebanese government, this virtually assures that Lebanon will allow the United Nations to fill the vacuum.

The problem of where to draw the border remains. Lebanon has threatened that violence will continue unless it recovers territory on the Golan Heights that Israel shows no sign of relinquishing and that Syria also claims.

The attacks yesterday could be a sign of trouble to come. With the Israel-Syria peace process dormant, Syria has less need to restrain Hezbollah. The rocket attack is also likely to increase opposition in northern Israel to Barak's withdrawal plans, with residents fearing they will become more vulnerable.

"We can't continue this way," said Haim Barbivei, mayor of Kiryat Shemona. "For 33 years we've been living in this inferno."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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