Israelis, Muslims duel with artillery, rockets in southern Lebanon Heavy barrages fired; no deaths reported


JERUSALEM -- Israeli forces and Muslim fighters supported by the Lebanese army traded rocket and artillery fire in southern Lebanon yesterday, as Middle East violence spread after Israel's assassination Sunday of the Lebanese Shiite leader, Sheik Abbas Musawi.

Hundreds of rounds were exchanged and dozens of rockets fired, including some that landed in northern Israel, where residents are used to such attacks but had not experienced one in a long time. Most of the fire against the Israelis and their allies came from Muslim militias, but the Lebanese army also was reported to have fired some rounds.

Despite the heavy shelling, no casualties were reported, and southern Lebanon was reportedly quiet last night.

There was also no immediate political fallout from the Musawi killing, which capped a bloody weekend in which more than a dozen Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese were killed in brutal attacks and counterattacks.

The dominant short-term concern is that the violence might undermine the Middle East peace talks scheduled to resume in Washington next Monday. But there was no sign yesterday that any of the central parties -- Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians -- had changed their minds about going to Washington, even though some Palestinian delegates were said to be recommending a boycott.

Still, tensions remained high on both sides.

Tens of thousands of enraged and grieving Shiite Muslims filled streets in southern Beirut to mourn the 39-year-old Musawi and to swear revenge against Israel and its principal ally, the United States. "Oh God, wipe Israel and America out of existence," some of them chanted.

"We shall make the earth shake under the feet of the Zionists," Sheik Musawi's deputy, Sheik Naim Qassem, told thousands of followers who participated in the funeral of the secretary-general of pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God. "The struggle between us and Israel is now wide open."

Israel, bracing for possible reprisal raids, put its police and army troops on heightened alert, including those who patrol Israel's self-proclaimed security zone, carved out of southern Lebanon with the help of a Christian-dominated Lebanese militia.

Government leaders here warned that Israel would strike back if attacked, and the armed forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, was quoted by Israel radio as saying that if the rocket barrage did not stop at the Lebanese border, "the aggressors will pay a heavy price." He said that Israel held the Lebanese government responsible for maintaining order in southern Lebanon, a stronghold of Hezbollah.

International uneasiness with the latest bloodshed was apparent well. Security reportedly was tightened around Western embassies in Beirut, and Westerners in that city, still seared by memories of the many kidnappings of the 1980s, were urged to keep a low profile. Both Britain and France issued appeals yesterday similar to one by the United States Sunday calling for restraint on all sides.

It started over the weekend, first with an Arab attack on a lightly-manned army post in Israel that killed three soldiers, including two recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union who had begun their military duty only a few weeks ago. Israeli officials have blamed the raid on the mainstream Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and say the three suspects they are hunting belong to an underground group called the Black Panthers, based in the West Bank town of Jenin.

In retaliation, Israeli warplanes and helicopters struck early Sunday at two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, killing four people, including a woman and two children.

Hours later, in an orchestrated raid that technically was unrelated to the earlier violence but nonetheless augmented it, Israeli helicopter gunships fired rockets on a convoy in which Sheik Musawi was riding. Israeli officials said its forces had expected the sheik to attend a meeting with other Hezbollah leaders in southern Lebanon and then tracked his movements before striking.

In addition to hitting him, the Israelis also killed his wife and young son and several bodyguards. Some Israeli officials said yesterday that they regretted the death of the family members. But there were no tears for the sheik, who was regarded as an arch-nemy and the architect of many Hezbollah assaults on the Israeli security zone and on Western interests.

"It's been a long time since the Party of God and its leaders suffered such a strong blow," General Barak said, adding: "I am thankful that he was hit."

Israeli defense experts differed about how severe a blow the Shiite group had suffered. Some called it serious but others cautioned that the Hezbollah may have been stunned but not knocked out. The group recently increased its attacks on Israeli troops in Lebanon, and many analysts said they expected the raids to continue and perhaps intensify.

Senior officials involved in hostage talks for the last few months also said they expected the latest episode to have little effect, if any, on Israel's attempts to learn the whereabouts of missing servicemen in Lebanon. Those efforts have been stumbling for months anyway, they said.

But there was mild elation among some military officers that the strike against Sheik Musawi may have erased some of the stain caused by weekend Arab attack on the Israeli army camp. That assault -- with axes, knives and a pitchfork -- coupled with the fact that the soldiers in the camp seem to have been poorly defended and trained has been widely viewed among Israelis as mortifying.

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