3 Israeli soldiers killed in ambush battle ensues


JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops fought an intense battle with pro-Iranian guerrillas in southern Lebanon for most of yesterday after three Israeli paratroopers were killed in an ambush on their armored vehicle as it patrolled along the edge of Israel's cross-border security zone.

After guerrillas belonging to the Party of God, or Hezbollah, detonated a roadside bomb and destroyed the armored vehicle, Israeli forces counterattacked with warplanes, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery, according to reports from the region.

Hundreds of shells from long-range Israeli artillery and the shorter-range howitzers and tanks of the South Lebanon Army, a local Israeli-maintained militia, fell in a four-hour barrage on half a dozen Shiite Muslim villages where Hezbollah guerrillas often take shelter, Lebanese radio stations said.

The guerrillas managed to return some of the fire, hurling a few Katyusha rockets back at Israel's self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon and the villages where Israel recruits members for the South Lebanon Army.

"There is a real war under way in the central sector," an officer with the United Nations peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, said. "The exchange is the heaviest in months and months."

Israeli spokesmen put their casualties at three killed and two critically wounded in the original attack; Western news agencies reported that at least eight Lebanese civilians and one UNIFIL soldier, a Ghanaian hit by shrapnel, were wounded in the subsequent bombardment.

The flare-up, the fiercest since five Israelis were killed in another roadside bombing in October, appeared linked to the likely resumption of the Arab-Israeli peace talks in Washington next week.

Before most of the previous eight rounds of talks, Hezbollah guerrillas attacked Israeli forces and the South Lebanon Army to underscore their rejection of the negotiations and remind Israel that they would still be there, whatever was agreed in Washington. Through its guerrilla attacks, Hezbollah was hoping to force Israel to pull out of southern Lebanon.

The bomb's toll brought to five the number of Israeli soldiers killed this year in southern Lebanon.

In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin suggested that he would keep the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank sealed off for the next month while troops continue their security sweeps. But his ministers talked again of bringing back about two-thirds of the Palestinian workers to keep Israel's economy growing.

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