An Israeli search and destroy mission in southern Lebanon ended Wednesday evening after three Israelis and at least 40 Lebanese guerrillas were killed in fierce clashes that occurred during a surprise second phase of the operation, the military command announced.
The clashes occurred Wednesday morning in and around the village of Maydoun, hours after Israel had begun pulling back its forces farther east.
The deputy army spokesman, Lt. Col. Raanan Gissin, insisted at a briefing here that from the beginning, the Maydoun operation was part of what Israel Radio dubbed "Operation Law and Order," which began Monday night and was described at first as a search for would-be Palestinian infiltrators.
Stormy Cabinet Meeting
But informed Israeli sources in Jerusalem said that at a meeting of the so-called Inner Cabinet earlier in the day, at least two senior ministers expressed anger at what they described as Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's failure to fully inform them ahead of time of the scope of the action.
The operation brought Israeli troops to within about five miles of Syrian army units in Mashghara. And according to Lebanese sources and Israeli Television, an Israeli artillery bombardment in connection with the ground attack wiped out long-range guns in Syrian-controlled territory.
Israel Radio said an Israeli helicopter gunship attacked and silenced a 122-millimeter cannon being fired by Lebanese army troops.
Gissin insisted that the Israeli forces had gone out of their way to avoid provoking the Syrians into a confrontation that could have risked a broader conflict between the region's two principal powers.
Gissin said Maydoun had become a "major stronghold" of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) guerrillas in southern Lebanon. The area was laced with dugouts, trenches and gun emplacements, he said.
Gissin said that although Hezbollah has not been linked to any of a series of recent attempts to infiltrate guerrillas into Israel, it has been involved in attacks on about 800 Israeli troo1886593139security zone in southern Lebanon and on the largely Christian South Lebanon Army, which is allied with Israel.
He described the attack as a message that Israel will not tolerate further infiltration attempts, adding, "We thought it's about time to issue that message . . . in order to deter Hezbollah from its creeping movement toward our border."
Town Called an Armed Camp
According to the Israeli military command, the civilian residents of Maydoun were forced from their homes long ago by Hezbollah guerrillas who turned the town into a well-fortified base.
U.N. observers said that during the night, the Israelis moved two additional mechanized battalions across the border to back up the operation. The reinforcements brought to an estimated 2,500 the number of Israeli troops in south Lebanon, but the military command here said that not all were involved in the search and destroy operation.
Israeli artillery shelled Maydoun and the surrounding hills all night, sending about 1,000 rounds into the area by daybreak Wednesday, according to Timur Goksel, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
"That's heavy in that time period anyplace in the world, especially on such a narrow front," Goksel said.
Israeli paratroopers sealed off roads around the village, and helicopter gunships and infantry moved in at first light, apparently encountering more resistance than expected.
"Hezbollah decided to make a stand," the Israeli army's Gissin said. "If Hezbollah would not have engaged us, we would not have fought."
The battle lasted for several hours, ending with Israeli troops fighting house to house. "It was a real war," Israeli Television quoted one commander as saying.
17 Soldiers Wounded
In addition to the deaths of two officers and a sergeant, 17 Israelis were wounded, one seriously. The wounded were flown to a hospital in Israel.
Gissin said that most of the 40 guerrillas killed were members of Hezbollah, although members of other anti-Israel organizations were also among the dead. He said that at least 40 others escaped, but he refused to confirm or deny reports that Israeli troops had brought at least 30 Lebanese prisoners back across the border.
The army spokesman said the Israeli forces had captured "considerable weaponry" in the village, including rocket-propelled grenades, mines and Kalashnikov rifles. Israeli Television said the army destroyed some vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft guns in the village.
On Monday night, in an unusual step, the Israeli military announced that hundreds of troops had begun a sweep into the security zone in search of Palestinian guerrillas. A spokesman described the action as "due to the growing number of terrorist attempts to infiltrate into Israel for the purpose of committing murder and terrorist attacks for (hostage) bargaining purposes." He said the sweep would end "with the conclusion of the search."
There have been at least a dozen attempts to infiltrate Israel from the north in the last five months. In them, 11 Israelis, 9 members of the allied South Lebanon Army and 66 guerrillas have been killed.
On Tuesday, the Israeli sweep was concentrated in the western foothills of Mt. Hermon, near the place where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet. It was through that area that several of the recent infiltration efforts had apparently been mounted.
Gissin said Wednesday that troops had found "some weapons" in eight villages searched in that first phase but "not, perhaps, what we expected." Troops encountered no resistance in those searches.
The army spokesman denied that the operation against Maydoun was undertaken out of frustration with the failure of the operation in the Mt. Hermon area to turn up more weapons and suspects. Wednesday's operation "was planned before we went into the area," he said. "There were two separate missions for two separate forces."
Gissin said the operation served three purposes: to clear the area of terrorist strongholds, to warn residents not to aid would-be infiltrators and "to enhance our deterrence in the ongoing struggle" against hostile forces in southern Lebanon.
The increased probes of Israel's northern defenses in recent weeks are seen partly as an expression of support by outside forces for the five-month-old Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While Israeli security officials say there are signs that the uprising is waning in the face of army countermeasures, five more Palestinians have been killed in clashes with the army in the last two days.
Two were killed and six were wounded in a clash with troops Wednesday night in the Gaza Strip's big Jabaliya refugee camp, Israel Television reported.