Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Friday expressed "deep sorrow" over the deaths of two free-lance CBS television newsmen killed by Israeli tank fire in southern Lebanon on Thursday, but he defended the tank crew.
In a letter to CBS News President Edward M. Joyce, Peres said, "I . . . totally reject any suggestion that the incident was anything but a derivative of the tragic situation in Lebanon and the circumstances under which we are forced to carry out our duty to protect the lives of our soldiers."
Joyce had protested the killings in a cable to Peres on Thursday, saying the attack was "unprovoked and deliberate" and calling for an immediate investigation and "rigorous and appropriate action to prevent the recurrence of such outrageous behavior by Israeli forces."
No Inquiry Planned
Israel radio reported Friday night that the army plans no further investigation of the incident.
"The tank crew involved did not deviate from the strict orders concerning the protection of innocent bystanders," Peres said. He also reiterated what he called "Israel's longstanding and unqualified commitment to freedom of the press."
Peres' response, released by his office here, came as the Israeli army raided another southern Lebanese village and as the Israeli media reported that almost all the troops may be back home by mid-May, well ahead of their original pullout schedule.
In a second message to the Israeli prime minister Friday, Joyce said Peres' "commitment to a free press may not be shared by your military personnel in the field." He said the Israelis had ignored eyewitness testimony about the incident, and he announced that he had dispatched CBS News Vice President Ernest Leiser to Jerusalem to pursue the network's request for an investigation.
The two CBS crew members, cameraman Tafik Ghazawi, 47, and soundman Bahije Metni, 37, both Lebanese, were killed Thursday near the Shia Muslim village of Kfar Melki, about 10 miles southeast of Sidon, during the Israelis' Operation Iron Fist raids in the area. The driver of the CBS crew's car, Ayad Hassan Harake, sustained serious injuries in the Israeli attack.
21 Lebanese Slain
More than a score of southern Lebanese villages have been targets of such raids, which are designed to discourage attacks against the Israelis by Muslim guerrillas determined to hasten Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Besides the two CBS crewmen, 21 Lebanese--described by the Israelis as terrorists--were killed during Israeli operations Thursday in three villages.
Witnesses to the incident involving the newsmen said an Israeli tank gunner fired at a group of journalists and unarmed Lebanese villagers from a distance of 500 yards.
"They could see we were journalists because the CBS cameraman was just standing up in the middle of the road and he was filming us," French television correspondent Marine Jacquemin, a witness, said during a telephone interview broadcast in America on the "CBS Morning News" program. She said that Ghazawi had his camera on his shoulder and that his car was clearly marked "Press."
Peres repeated the official Israel Defense Forces account of the incident, first released Thursday night. He said the CBS crew members "took a position in the midst of a group of armed men who were engaged in active hostility" against Israeli troops. According to the Israeli account, the tank was 1.5 miles away when it fired at the "armed men."
The Israeli military command, meanwhile, warned reporters traveling in southern Lebanon that if they "enter territory in which armed terrorists are located, they take on themselves the risk of getting hurt."
Joyce, in his second message to Peres, said CBS was "fully aware of the risks entailed in covering a combat zone" but "never contemplated the possibility that they would include deliberate fire by Israeli forces on unarmed and neutral journalists."
In Friday's raid on the village of Qlaile, about seven miles north of the headquarters in Naqoura of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the Israelis said they killed one man who tried to escape and wounded another. They said a large quantity of arms and ammunition was found hidden around the village.
U.N. officials reported that 26 villagers were taken away from the town for questioning when the operation ended at about noon.
Meanwhile, two Israeli newspapers reported that Israeli troops will be out of Lebanon by June at the latest. The English-language Jerusalem Post reported in a front-page article that Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who voted against the decision to withdraw from Lebanon last January, would not try to halt the pullout process.
"There is no purpose now in trying to change the decision regarding the withdrawal," the Post quoted Shamir as saying. There had been speculation here that Shamir and other leaders from the hawkish Likud bloc would try to stop the last stage of the planned three-phase pullout.
Decision by April 15
The Post said the Cabinet will approve the start of the third and final stage of the evacuation by April 15 and that most of the troops "should be out of Lebanon by the first week in May."
Foreign Ministry officials stressed that comments on the timing of the pullout were those of the article's author. Shamir made no such statement in the interview, they said.
The political correspondent of the independent Haaretz newspaper also reported Friday that there is enough unity in the government on the issue to guarantee that "there will be no third anniversary of the (army's) stay in Lebanon."
Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982, to force Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas away from its northern border. Haaretz reported that if the final pullback is delayed beyond mid-May, it will be because of decisions made by the military.
While the Cabinet voted to withdraw from Lebanon last Jan. 14, it reserved the right to decide on the timing of each stage of the operation. The army is currently in the midst of the second stage, which was approved March 4. But the ministers will have to vote at least once more in order to clear the final phase.
Israeli officials have said they hope to complete the withdrawal by Sept. 15. But increasingly bloody fighting between occupation troops and mostly Shia Muslim guerrillas in Lebanon has prompted a revaluation of the timetable.
On Thursday, the 641st Israeli fatality of the war was recorded when a soldier died of wounds suffered earlier this month. In just the last six weeks, 29 Israelis have died in Lebanon, and about 100 Lebanese have been killed in village raids.