TEL AVIV (Sep. 30)
Southern Lebanon remained tense after heavy fighting over the Rosh Hashanah holiday between well-trained forces of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Israeli-supported troops left at least nine dead.
The violence began early Tuesday, when hundreds of Hezbollah fighters launched a large-scale bombardment of a dozen positions controlled by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army in what security sources said was “one of the fiercest days of fighting” the area has seen in many months.
Fire was directed at the northern edge of the border security zone from Nabatiya, in the east, to the coast.
Hezbollah gunmen pushing their way to SLA lines surrounded a checkpoint of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon near Barasheet and opened fire when they were refused permission to pass.
Their fire killed an Irish member of the multinational force and wounded another.
The fighting also claimed the lives of two SLA soldiers, at least two Lebanese civilians and four Hezbollah gunmen.
An SLA position near Rashaf beat back a frontal attack by a force of about 20 Hezbollah gunmen, who moved in behind supporting fire rained down by Katyusha rockets, mortars, anti-aircraft guns, Sager anti-tank missiles and machine guns.
The SLA post commander and another soldier were killed and four more wounded in the attack. The remainder of the 14-member contingent counterattacked and pursued fleeing Hezbollah men even before the arrival of reinforcements from the SLA and the Israel Defense Force.
Their conduct was lauded by the head of the IDF’s Northern Command and by the commander of the SLA.
The attackers left behind rifles, anti-tank rockets, dozens of hand grenades, mines and explosive devices.
The attack culminated two weeks of Hezbollah activity which came after an extended period of quiet during which the fundamentalist group was busy seeking support in the Lebanese elections.
Those who believed the Hezbollah would follow up the elections by grandiose actions designed to demonstrate its undiminished vigor proved to be right, analyst Emanuel Rosen wrote Wednesday in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.
SLA and IDF gunners launched a counter-bombardment of suspected terrorist targets north of the zone. Lebanese police said the four hours of shelling killed a 45-year-old woman and an 80-year-old man, and wounded 11 civilians.
A UNIFIL spokesman said dozens of “armed elements” from the north tried to force their way through UNIFIL checkpoints staffed by Nepalese and Irish soldiers.
They opened fire at the Irish troops, who refused to let them pass, wounding one soldier, who was evacuated to the headquarters of the U.N. buffer troops at Nakoura. He was reported out of danger by nightfall.
Corp. Peter Ward, a 31-year-old father of four on his third tour of duty with UNIFIL, was hit in the chest when the gunmen opened fire at an armored personnel carrier in which he served as machine-gunner.
He died at the scene as reinforcements were summoned from the nearby Irish battalion headquarters.
He was the 33rd Irishman killed and the 187th death in the 6,000-strong UNIFIL contingent since its arrival in southern Lebanon in 1978.
The Hezbollah has failed in every one of its operations over the past two weeks, although it did display some variety and sophistication of attack, according to Rosen of Ma’ariv.
The ground attack took place at a “soft and vulnerable underbelly of the security zone” north of Zarit, where less than 2# miles separate the Israeli and security zone borders. A similar attack occurred there last year.
The terrorists operated in an open area and managed to reach the outpost in good form, but they encountered an organized response from its defenders.
Three of the terrorists were killed, and three more apparently were wounded. If indeed there were 20 originally, then 14 managed to escape. This is an accomplishment of sorts for the Hezbollah, although the bottom line is its failure to capture the outpost — or even to take SLA prisoners, said Rosen.
He added that until the harsh Lebanese winter begins, “we can anticipate a number of weeks of energetic activity by the Hezbollah, although there is no doubt that recent failures have somewhat dampened their appetite to renew activity in the security zone.”