Islamic Suicide Bomber Kills Israeli Soldier
TAIBEH, Lebanon (AP) _ An Islamic militant leapt out of the bushes and blew himself up in front of an Israeli army convoy in southern Lebanon on Wednesday, killing one soldier and wounding an Israeli civilian.
The attack by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah put pressure on Israel on a second front while it is still reeling from a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 62 people, including four bombers.
Israeli troops in southern Lebanon came under mortar fire Wednesday around the same time, the Israeli army said. Israeli gunners opened up with 155-mm howitzers and 120-mm mortars against a cluster of Shiite Muslim villages just north of the enclave Israel holds in southern Lebanon, Lebanese security sources said.
A militiaman of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army was killed 90 minutes after the suicide attack when guerrillas detonated a roadside bomb. The second bomb exploded moments after Israel’s northern commander, Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, inspected the scene and left, the sources said.
The violence came as the United States was making intense diplomatic efforts to prevent Israel from launching a major military strike against Hezbollah guerrillas fighting to dislodge Israel from southern Lebanon.
On Wednesday, the Clinton administration called on Israel, Syria and Lebanon to act with restraint in response to the suicide attack.
``We are calling on all parties to restrain themselves in an effort to defuse the current situation, which is clearly heating up,″ Glyn Davies, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, said today.
The appeal contrasted with the tougher stance taken by President Clinton and other U.S. officials after the recent suicide attacks in Israel. ``No two situations are alike,″ Davies said.
Hezbollah _ an ally of the Palestinian groups that carried out the suicide bombings _ said Wednesday’s bombing in Lebanon was in response to the international anti-terrorism conference held in Egypt last week.
It was the first suicide bombing in nearly a year in southern Lebanon, the last active Arab-Israeli war front. In recent weeks, Hezbollah has been stepping up its attacks on the zone Israel has controlled since 1985 to protect its northern communities against guerrilla raids.
The suicide bomber leapt out of bushes near the village of Taibeh as a convoy of four Israeli vehicles drove past. When Israeli soldiers opened fire, he detonated explosives strapped around his body just 10 yards from the convoy, Lebanese security sources said.
Capt. Salah Kamal Zeidan, 23, was killed. Israel radio identified the injured civilian as Yaacov Gil, of the city Safed. His presence in the military convoy indicated he is a security official.
Reports about the mortar attacks on Israeli troops and retaliatory fire were fragmentary.
The Israeli army said mortar fire targeted Israeli forces around the time of the bombing. Israeli troops returned fire. At the same time, mortars were fired at a South Lebanon Army outpost.
One Lebanese civilian in the zone was wounded in an exchange of artillery and rocket fire between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas, Lebanese sources reported.
Lebanese security sources also said Israeli helicopter gunships strafed suspected guerrilla locations in the hills facing the zone’s eastern sector for five minutes, using parachute flares to see in the night. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The violence intensified the pressure on Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel, a key architect of Israel’s peace strategy. Peres has been struggling to revive the sagging fortunes of his Labor Party, which is heading into May national elections badly battered by the Palestinian bombings.
Wednesday’s attacks came a day after Peres warned that guerrillas in Lebanon would pay for increasing attacks on Israeli troops and their Lebanese allies. ``He who tries to harm Israel will be punished, and very quickly,″ Peres said.
After the threat, the United States intervened to keep the violence from growing.
U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk called Peres on Tuesday to ask him to hold off on a military strike until Washington could ask President Hafez Assad of Syria _ the main power broker in Lebanon _ to restrain Hezbollah, two Israeli newspapers reported Wednesday.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also sent a message to Jerusalem urging restraint, the Yediot Ahronot and Davar newspapers said.
Syria has 40,000 troops deployed north of the Israeli enclave. It can rein in Hezbollah by cutting off its supply routes to the south.
Hezbollah said the new suicide bombing was its response to a U.S.-sponsored summit at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik last week to forge international action against terrorism and prevent the peace process from collapsing.
``In response to the Sharm el-Sheik summit and to those who sleep on the doorsteps of the White House, a resistance holy warrior attacked an enemy convoy today,″ a statement said.
Pressing its offensive against Islamic militants Wednesday, Israel blew up the West Bank homes of three men linked to suicide bombings.