Lebanon clash leaves at least 11 Israelis dead
INSARIYEH, Lebanon (AP) _ Lebanese guerrillas and soldiers attacked an Israeli commando unit today, killing 11 Israelis. An Israeli soldier was missing and presumed dead in Israel’s worst loss in Lebanon in more than a decade.
The pre-dawn clash, well outside Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon, also killed a Lebanese woman and a baby and wounded six other civilians, Lebanese officials said. Six Lebanese guerrillas and a Lebanese soldier were injured.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli army said the Israeli soldiers were killed after a raiding party of navy commandos clashed with guerrillas near the hilltop village of Insariyeh, halfway between the southern ports of Sidon and Tyre. Four soldiers were wounded.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel TV that Israel would consider trading Hezbollah prisoners in its custody for the body of the missing Israeli soldier.
``We are considering all the possibilities,″ he said. ``We see every soldier, even one that died, as something precious, as part of our flesh that we have to provide a burial for in Israel.″
Earlier, the Israeli armed forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, told a news conference Israel ``will do everything it can to bring back the MIA.″
The Israeli target in Lebanon was not immediately clear, and there was no word on whether the raid was swift retaliation for a triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Thursday that killed four Israelis.
Israeli army officials said today’s clash resulted in the highest death toll in a single firefight in Lebanon since Israel set up its occupied zone in 1985. It was a blow to Israel’s vaunted military, which has for years encountered limited resistance to commando raids into Lebanon.
The Israeli army said it held the Beirut government and Lebanon’s national army responsible for returning the missing Israeli soldier.
But Hezbollah, the guerrilla group leading the fight against Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon, said it had no Israeli soldiers in its custody.
``We have no prisoners. We have limbs,″ Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told a news conference in south Beirut.
His guerrillas displayed body parts from two dead Israeli soldiers as well as captured military gear, including sub-machine guns, bomb detonators, helmets, boots, flippers and amphibious breathing equipment.
After today’s attack, smoke from smoldering bushes hung over the battlefield as guerrillas picked their way through bodies and military gear abandoned by the Israelis in their retreat. One guerrilla packed a severed leg, still wearing a black military boot, into a cardboard box.
A Lebanese soldier held the crushed skull of an Israeli commando by the hair and displayed it for photographers before another soldier intervened and took it away.
Nearby, a 35-year-old woman lay dead on the back seat of a car, its windows blown out. Lebanese soldiers said the car was driving down the road when the battle began. The driver survived with injuries.
The Israeli operation began shortly after midnight Thursday when commandos landed by helicopter on the site, 30 miles north of the Israeli border and well north of Israel’s occupied zone in Lebanon, Lebanese security officials said.
The Lebanese army said its troops spotted the raiding party, fired flares and then opened up with machine guns. Guerrillas of two Shiite Muslim groups _ the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Syrian-backed Amal _ also began shooting, the security officials said.
Several commandos were hit in the first exchange of gunfire, the army said. The fierce fight lasted well over three hours.
Israeli forces brought in helicopters and boats to evacuate the wounded and to find the missing soldier.
The Lebanese government, fearing major Israeli reprisals for the ambush, asked the United States and France to intercede with Israel, according to official Lebanese sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Lebanese army has mostly stayed out of the conflict between guerrillas and Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon. However, Lebanese troops recently have been shooting back at Israelis, a move that has heightened tensions in the volatile south.
Military analysts suggested the Israeli commandos may have been planning to ambush a guerrilla motorcade in southern Lebanon.
Another possible target could have been the deputy spiritual leader of Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shiite Muslims, Sheik Abdul-Amir Kabalan, who has a house in Insariyeh, Beirut radio stations said.
Israel has in the past struck at guerrilla bases and commanders deep inside Lebanon to avenge attacks on Israeli troops in the south.
Last month, helicopter-borne Israeli commandos landed behind the front line and set off bombs, killing three guerrilla commanders. More than 30 people, most of them Lebanese civilians, were killed in Lebanon in tit-for-tat fighting during August.
Today’s clash in southern Lebanon came less than 24 hours after a triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed seven people, including three bombers, and injured 200 others. The Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for that attack.
The Jerusalem bombing sets back efforts to restart the peace process. There had been hopes that next week’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would pump new life into deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.