Israeli forces Thursday raided at least three southern Lebanese villages and killed 23 people, including two free-lance newsmen working for the CBS television network, during an all-day anti-guerrilla sweep that took them near the outskirts of Sidon and the factional fighting raging there.
An Israel Defense Force spokesman said 21 "terrorists, . . most of them armed" were killed during a search at Houmine et Tahta, about six miles southeast of the battle-scarred port city of Sidon, in an area the Israelis evacuated last Feb. 16 during the first phase of their planned three-stage withdrawal from Lebanon.
Fire From Israeli Tank
The two CBS newsmen, both Lebanese, were killed and their driver was critically injured when a shell from an Israeli tank slammed into their car near the Shia Muslim village of Kfar Melki. A CBS spokeswoman in New York identified the slain newsmen as cameraman Tafik Ghazawi, 47, and soundman Bahije Metni, 37. The injured driver was identified as Ayad Hassan Harake.
An Israeli Defense Force announcement late Thursday said "it appears" the television newsmen were unintended victims of fire directed towards "armed men who had taken firing positions" near the town.
"The IDF does not shoot at civilians, including journalists who are clearly identified as such," the statement said. "If journalists enter territory in which armed terrorists are located, they take on themselves the risk of getting hurt."
In New York, CBS News President Edward M. Joyce protested what he called the "unprovoked and deliberate attack by Israeli forces" on CBS employees and sent a message to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres demanding an investigation of "this tragic and shameful occurrence."
Joyce said two eyewitnesses, both French journalists, reported that the Israelis had fired at the CBS newsmen "with intent to kill" and that the car in which they were sitting was "clearly and unmistakably marked as a camera car."
Maurine Jacquemin, a French television reporter who witnessed the shelling, told Reuters news service that the Israeli tank crew "saw we were journalists." She said she was standing about six feet away from the CBS car when the incident occurred. "We were filming and interviewing, and they shot at us deliberately," she charged.
According to Jacquemin's account, the Israeli tank fired two shells from about 500 yards away. She said one shell hit the CBS car, killing Ghazawi and Metni instantaneously and severing the legs of their driver, Harake. Shrapnel from the second shell struck her driver and several villagers, including a small girl, as they tried to help the CBS crewmen.
Jacquemin, 32, of the French television network TF-1, said she believes that the Israeli tank crew could see clearly that those in the group were journalists. "It was incredible," she said. "They saw me and I have long, blonde hair. I couldn't have been Lebanese."
Israeli troops also apparently fired automatic weapons at an UPITN television news crew in the same vicinity, wrecking their car and injuring an employee. An official for the independent news organization in London said a cameraman, Vladimir Popov, was injured by windshield shards scattered by the small arms fire.
In his statement, Joyce said the slain CBS newsmen were "unarmed news professionals in the pursuit of legitimate news coverage." He called for "immediate and energetic action" by the Israeli government to investigate the incident, and "rigorous and appropriate action to prevent the recurrence of such outrageous behavior by Israeli forces."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Joseph Reap said, "We deplore the deaths of these newsmen as we deplore all the deaths of innocent people in the violence in South Lebanon. We are seeking further information on this tragic event."
At least seven other journalists have been killed covering wars in Lebanon in recent years.
Lebanese army sources said Israeli paratroopers backed up by tanks, helicopters and armored personnel carriers moved out at dawn Thursday in what were to be their deadliest raids since the Israeli Defense Force killed at least 37 people during a search-and-destroy operation March 11 in the village of Zrariye.
The Israelis said they searched two villages east of Sidon--Houmine et Tahta and Jbaa--but the Lebanese said at least nine towns, including Kfar Melki, were raided. An Israeli Defense Force spokesman said Israeli troops were on the outskirts of Kfar Melki, but not inside it.
Most of the towns named by the Lebanese military lie on two main roads between Sidon and Israeli positions around Nabatiyeh, and the Israeli troops would have had to pass through several of them to reach the two villages it confirmed searching.
The area east of Sidon had not previously been affected by Israel's six-week-old "iron fist" policy of striking at villages believed to harbor guerrillas and their weapons. But military sources in Tel Aviv said it had recently been the scene of increased guerrilla resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Israeli Patrol Ambushed
Last Sunday, gunmen ambushed a seven-man Israeli army patrol in Jibchit, about 10 miles south of Thursday's raids, killing two soldiers and wounding five others.
An IDF spokesman said massive quantities of arms, ammunition, and explosives were found in Thursday's raids, including 105 cases of "demolition blocks"--bricks of plastic explosive used in roadside bombs and car bombs.
One Israeli soldier was slightly wounded, but no Israeli fatalities were reported.
Israeli television's military reporter, who accompanied the army to Houmine et Tahta, said the troops encountered "some resistance," both inside the village and in the orchards nearby, from guerrillas firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. The Israeli spokesman said one soldier was slightly wounded in the assault.
Israeli television reported that troops found "dozens of terrorists" hiding in caves and attics and that they "fought bravely" before most surrendered and were taken prisoner. Television showed film of Israeli troops ordering women and children out of their homes. "The IDF didn't fire into houses until they made sure there were no women and children inside," the military correspondent reported. "I didn't see any incident where a child, a youth or a woman was shot. However, some adults who tried to flee in cars were hit. I think one woman who was in a car with armed men was also hurt."
Independent sources in the south said roadside bombs were detonated near Israeli military targets at three locations Thursday--at Aarab Salim, on the main road toward Jbaa and Houmine et Tahta and at two villages in the so-called "arc of resistance" east of Tyre, Maaroub and Bazouriye. There were no reports of Israeli casualties in any of those incidents.
Bombs Safely Disarmed
A military spokesman said three other roadside bombs were safely disarmed by army sappers.
The Israeli Defense Force confirmed that it raided another south Lebanese village Thursday well south of the major all-day operation in the north. Troops searched Srifa, also east of Tyre, and arrested four people.
There was some speculation that the surprise Israeli operation east of Sidon was designed to help rebellious Christian militiamen who have been fighting the Lebanese army near the port city for the last four days.
However, the Israeli Defense Force quickly issued a denial, saying that no Israeli troops are headed for Sidon or do they intend to get involved in the fighting there. A spokesman said the Israeli soldiers returned to their regular occupation line Thursday afternoon.
Members of the Lebanese Forces, a powerful Christian militia, are in revolt against Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's increasingly pro-Syrian policies. According to wire service reports from Sidon on Thursday, the streets of the city were tense and deserted after a cease fire ended fierce overnight rocket and artillery duels between the militia and the regular Lebanese army, which supports Gemayel.
Peres, the Israeli prime minister, said earlier this week that most Israeli troops will be out of Lebanon within 8 to 10 weeks. The so-called "Jezzine bulge" occupation area nearest the villages raided Thursday is to be evacuated as part of the current second stage of the withdrawal.