Israelis Stage Biggest South Lebanon Thrust in Two Years
AIN ATA, Lebanon (AP) _ Israeli tanks and troops pushed unchecked through Arab villages and towns to within four miles of Syrian positions Tuesday in Israel’s largest incursion into Lebanon in two years.
The tanks rolled north of Israel’s self-designated security zone and backed up hundreds of heavily armed troops who combed Lebanon’s rugged southern foothills, searching for Palestinian guerrillas.
Lebanese police said Syrian forces went on ″maximum alert″ as Israeli fighters neared Syrian troops. No clashes were reported.
The operation was part of a push into the southeastern Arkoub region that began Monday evening. The army said the incursion was aimed at smashing anti- Israeli guerrilla groups responsible for recent raids into northern Israel.
In the pre-dawn darkness, before helicopter gunships began troop transport, Israeli artillery shelled areas around Ain Ata and several nearby villages. No one was reported hurt.
Then about 500 Israeli soldiers, armed with automatic weapons and rocket launchers, were flown to the northern edge of Ain Ata, a police spokesman said.
Six Israeli tanks and nine armored personnel carriers later rolled into the town, about 1 1/2 miles north of Israel’s self-designated security zone in south Lebanon.
Israel created the zone in 1985 after it withdrew its army, which had occupied Lebanon since 1982.
Israeli troops conducted what appeared to be a house-to-house search in the town, said the spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with standing regulations.
Before the search began Israeli troops sealed off all approaches to Ain Ata and five surrounding villages. Helicopters dropped leaflets calling on the population to cooperate in the search for guerrillas.
Only villagers who work for the Lebanese regular army were allowed to leave. This reporter, who lives in Ain Ata, was also allowed to leave after he showed his Associated Press card.
Israeli troops also entered five other Arkoub villages policed by a Norwegian battalion of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in south Lebanon and conducted a 10-hour search for guerrillas, U.N. officials said.
It was not clear whether anyone was detained.
Later Tuesday, about 400 ground troops were seen entering Lebanon from Metulla, in the far northeastern corner of Israel. Some flashed ″V″ for victory signs. Others sang Israeli nationalist songs.
A police spokesman said the Syrian command ordered its estimated 16,000 troops in the nearby Bekaa Valley on maximum alert. Ain Ata is four miles from Syrian positions.
″There have been no clashes, but the Syrians have their tanks dug in on hills overlooking the Israeli operational zone,″ the police spokesman said.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel said the Jewish state’s military operation in Lebanon would not lead to a prolonged entanglement or provoke a confrontation with Syria.
″There’s totally no danger of entanglement in Lebanon,″ Shamir told Israel radio.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin indicated on Israel TV after touring south Lebanon that the operation will go on at least until Wednesday evening. He said ″there is no reason for ... (the Syrians) to get involved.″
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said in a statement that he ″deplores this further violation of Lebanese sovereignty.″ He also called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops.
In Washington, the Reagan administration called for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.
Lebanon’s central government in Beirut, its power eroded by 13 years of civil war between pro-Syrian Moslems and Israel-allied Christians, ordered its U.N. Ambassador, Rashid Fakhoury, to lodge a ″strongly worded complaint″ against the Israeli action with the Security Council.
An Israeli commander in Lebanon, who was not identified by name, said on Israel radio that he told soldiers:
″This operation is not a nightlong operation in which you go in now and return in the morning. Don’t be speedy in pressing the trigger ... but if you do shoot, you mean it seriously and shoot in order to kill.″
Timur Goksel, spokesman for the United Nations force in south Lebanon, said it appeared 1,500 to 2,000 Israeli troops were involved in the operation. But Israeli sources said fewer than 1,000 were taking part.
The operation was Israel’s largest in Lebanon since February 1986, when it sent more than 1,000 troops and dozens of tanks into south Lebanon to search for two soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas. The soldiers were never found.
The 100-square-mile Arkoub was the main base of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas for cross-border attacks into Israel before Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Palestinian and leftist guerrillas have lately been active again in the Arkoub and have conducted several raids into Israel.
Israeli officials say the increase in cross-border raids is linked to the five-month Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israeli incursion followed two such raids last week in which two Israeli soldiers and five guerrillas were killed.
Syria, Lebanon’s main power broker, maintains 25,000 troops in the Bekaa and northern Lebanon under a 1976 mandate from the Arab League to try to end Lebanon’s civil war.