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Israel Airstrikes Black Out Beirut

June 25, 1999

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ In the heaviest Israeli airstrikes against Lebanon in three years, warplanes bombed Lebanese power stations and bridges Friday, plunging the capital into darkness and triggering towering fires.

While Lebanese officials pledged to rebuild the demolished installations, damage to newly revived hopes for Middle East peace may prove far more difficult to repair.

The Israeli raids late Thursday and early Friday killed nine Lebanese and wounded 57, according to hospital, police and newspaper casualty figures.

The attacks were in response to a rocket attack by Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas early Thursday on the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemonah, which injured five people.

Hezbollah guerrillas answered the Israeli strikes near the capital of Beirut with rocket attacks on northern Israel, killing two Israelis in the border town.

Besides the worst civilian casualties in years, the latest escalation also sets back hopes for reviving long-stalled peace efforts, generated by Israeli elections last month in which Ehud Barak defeated hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

``These tragic events do not augur well for the prospects of resuming the peace process. A repetition of such acts may, in fact, undermine the process,″ Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss told a news conference Friday. He put the preliminary casualty toll at eight Lebanese dead and 64 wounded.

He said his government holds Barak _ whom Netanyahu did not consult about the raids _ equally responsible for the casualties.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on both sides to stop targeting civilians, calling the deaths ``deplorable.″

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said the United States was ``deeply concerned″ about the situation in Lebanon.

``This situation escalated dramatically yesterday as a result of Hezbollah’s firing barrages of Katyusha (rockets) into northern Israel. Israel retaliated with strikes against civilian infrastructure in Lebanon,″ Rubin said.

Israel and the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas they have been battling in southern Lebanon held their fire most of the day Friday, after the heaviest airstrikes since 1996.

In Kiryat Shemonah, which has not seen civilian deaths from rocket attacks since 1995, streets were largely deserted Friday as Israeli residents had left town or were staying in shelters.

In Beirut, soldiers patrolled blacked-out streets early Friday while jet fighters rumbled above the city. Electricity was out in most of the capital.

``I had forgotten what it was like to be so scared,″ said Nadine Aoun, a 25-year-old Beirut supermarket manager. ``It was a sleepless night, listening out for the drone of Israeli warplanes. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would explode.″

Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, told Israel Radio that Israel isn’t interested in escalating the situation if Hezbollah stops attacks across the border onto northern communities.

``But if the Hezbollah continues firing Katyushas, I say once again, the targets are ready, the planes are armed and the pilots are on alert. ... We will strike back,″ Mofaz said.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens said Israel had warned Syria _ the main power broken in Lebanon _ to rein in Hezbollah. ``That message apparently was not understood, and so we really had no choice. There’s an end to our patience,″ he told The Associated Press Television Network.

Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah issued a statement Friday saying Hezbollah ``will resort to the Katyushas whenever necessary.″

The Hezbollah assault that injured five Israelis was in retaliation to an earlier Israeli attack that injured a Lebanese civilian. The guerrillas fired 48 rockets on northern Israel over the course of the fighting.

Israeli jets hit two power substations outside Beirut, three bridges and a communications site on the southern Lebanon coastal highway as well as a guerrilla target in the eastern city of Baalbek, a stronghold of the Hezbollah militants.

Among Lebanon’s dead were five firefighters battling a blaze at one of the power stations, sparked by the strikes. They were killed when another bomb hit the site.

At the damaged Awali River Bridge, 25 miles south of Beirut, an army diver searched the river Friday for unexploded missiles. Slabs of concrete had fallen from the bridge, but pedestrians were allowed to cross when no missiles were found.

Six miles up the road, a van, a taxi and other cars were burned out and trapped under a demolished bridge. Blood stained the road, and the boot of one of two men killed lay nearby.

Hezbollah is leading a guerrilla war to oust Israeli troops and allied militiamen from a zone Israel has occupied in southern Lebanon since 1985 to try to protect its northern communities from attack.

The Lebanese Cabinet pledged speedy repairs of the destroyed facilities, and the government said it had received offers of help from the power grid of Syria, Lebanon’s dominant neighbor. A rationing regime of two hours of electricity a day was announced.

The government also decided to appeal to the International Court of Justice for compensation from Israel. Hoss said losses were ``immense.″

Netanyahu visited the families of the two dead Israelis in Kiryat Shemonah. Israel ``can’t accept a situation in which rockets will be fired on Israel and we will sit quietly,″ he said.

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