January 21, 2003
By BUTROS WANNA, Associated Press Writer
MARJAYOUN, Lebanon – Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas shelled Israeli positions in a disputed border area Tuesday, the first such attack in months, provoking Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire that wounded two civilians, security officials said.
In Israel, military officials confirmed the exchange, saying the army returned fire and sent helicopters into air.
The Lebanese officials said the guerrillas fired around 25 rockets and mortar shells on the Israeli military outpost of Roueissat el-Alam inside the Chebaa Farms area. There were no reports of injuries from the Hezbollah attack.
A Hezbollah statement issued in Beirut said its guerrillas targeted the outpost “as a group of (Israeli) soldiers were outside the post’s fortifications.” The statement said guerrillas fired at the outpost using “appropriate weapons and scoring direct hits.”
Israeli troops retaliated with two airstrikes and 155 mm artillery fire on suspected guerrilla hide-outs in the hills on the outskirts of Kfar Chouba, a small farming village near the Chebaa Farms area, the Lebanese officials said.
Two civilians were wounded by shrapnel in the village of Hibbariyeh near Kfar Chouba, the officials said.
Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000, ending an 18-year occupation during which it battled with the Iranian-backed Shiite militant guerrillas of Hezbollah. It remains locked in a territorial dispute with Hezbollah over the Farms, which Lebanon continues to claim.
The border area has been largely quiet since August, when the guerrillas fired mortar rounds and missiles at Israeli outposts, killing an Israeli soldier and wounding two others.
Israel captured the area from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war. The United Nations says the region belongs to Syria, and that Syria and Israel should negotiate its fate.
Meanwhile, a U.S. congressman urged Lebanese leaders Tuesday to intercede with Hezbollah to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to see four Israelis held by the militant guerrilla group.
Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who arrived here from Israel on Monday, said he had made a similar request in talks with Israeli officials to allow the ICRC access to Lebanese prisoners held in the Jewish state.
Three Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah guerrillas while patrolling the Lebanese border in October 2000. Hezbollah has refused to say whether they are alive or dead, but the Israeli army’s chief rabbi declared the three dead last year.
Hezbollah has also held abducted reserve Lt. Col. Elhanan Tennenbaum since October 2000.
Responding to Issa, Hezbollah, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations, said it was ready to disclose information about the four Israeli captives in exchange for the release of undetermined number of Lebanese and Arab prisoners held in Israel.
Israel is believed to be holding 13 Lebanese prisoners, some without trial, for alleged anti-Israel activities during the occupation of southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah has in the past offered to swap the four Israelis in return for the Lebanese prisoners – plus an unspecified number of Arab prisoners held in Israel.