TEL AVIV (Feb. 7)
Four Israeli soldiers were killed and five others wounded in an attack Monday by the fundamentalist Hezbollah movement in the southern Lebanon security zone.
Israeli casualties from the day’s fighting were reported to be the heaviest in six months.
Following the assault, gunners of the Israel Defense Force and its allied South Lebanon Army responded with heavy artillery fire, and Israeli air force jets and attack helicopters carried out bombing raids on Hezbollah targets north of the buffer zone.
Most of the Israeli casualties occurred in the first minutes of the attack on an Israel Defense Force patrol, which was shot at close range from a variety of weapons, from light arms to shoulder-held missiles.
The ambush reflects an increase in Hezbollah’s war of attrition against Israeli and allied South Lebanon Army troops. The pro-Iranian group had reduced its attacks in the days preceding last month’s meeting in Geneva between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Syria is believed to have considerable influence over Hezbollah and other rejectionist terror groups in Lebanon. Observers here blamed the recurrence of hostilities on Syrian manipulation of Hezbollah’s activities.
But Hezbollah spokesmen in Beirut said the escalation of the fighting was timed to mark the anniversary of the deaths of their group’s leaders at the hands of Israeli forces.
The attack occurred a day after the IDF commander for the northern region, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, forecast there would be a new round of hostilities from Hezbollah and other forces that reject Israel’s accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Mordechai made his remark at a gathering in the security zone town of Marjayoun held to recall the 313 SLA soldiers killed since the pro-Israel force was formed.
The last Israeli to be killed in southern Lebanon died Dec. 10 in a missile attack launched by Hezbollah.