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Hezbollah gunmen reported ready to open new battle front in Lebanon

LONDON, June 16 (JTA) — Iranian-backed Hezbollah gunmen are poised to escalate their attacks on positions occupied by Israel and the Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army in the southern Lebanon security zone, according to the London-based newsletter Foreign Report. Two weeks after the SLA withdrew from the Christian enclave of Jezzine, Hezbollah is now planning to fill the vacuum and open a new front in the area, the newsletter reported this week. The new front may force an Israeli retreat from positions near Jezzine, the report said, adding that Israeli soldiers have already conceded that terrain and are spending much of their time in bunkers. Most Israeli operations in the area are “relatively safe, long-range artillery barrages and air raids on hilltops which look like target practice,” said the newsletter. “The only defense the Israeli Army has come up with against increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs has been to hire local bulldozers to scrape the roadsides, making bombs easier to spot.” The report appeared as four Hezbollah political leaders — three of them members of the Lebanese Parliament — visited Jezzine on Wednesday. In the first such visit since the SLA withdrawal, the four sought to assure the local population that they have no intention of sending gunmen into the area. A similar assurance was made that day by Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Also on Wednesday, Israeli jets launched strikes at suspected Hezbollah targets in northeast Lebanon near Syria. The attack was the furthest north Israel has struck in Lebanon this year. The newsletter also reported that Washington has developed a working paper for restarting Israeli-Syrian negotiations. The talks, suspended in 1996, will resume if Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak signals his willingness to withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria, and if Syrian President Hafez Assad is willing to accept a comprehensive peace pact with Israel, including the opening of an Israeli embassy in Damascus, in return for the full Israeli withdrawal. If the two sides respond positively, direct talks will resume, possibly at the level of foreign minister and with the “vigorous sponsorship” of President Clinton, the newsletter said. The working paper also contains a timetable: * The target for an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty will be three years, including the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. * Israel and Hezbollah will agree to a six-month cease-fire, during which Israel will gradually withdraw from the security zone. The newsletter also reported that peace with Syria tops Barak’s agenda and that he is aiming to achieve an accord within two years, one year less than Washington’s target.

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