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Pro-Iranian Militia Captures Villages Close to Israeli Border

Associated Press

Iranian-backed Shia Muslims captured five key villages in southern Lebanon from pro-Syrian rivals in bloody hand-to-hand fighting Sunday and seized control of a key area bordering Israel’s security zone just north of the Israeli border, police said.

A top commander from the pro-Syrian Amal militia, Mohammed Hammoud, and his brother, Ahmed, were killed in a dawn raid on their home by fighters of the pro-Iranian militia, the Hezbollah, a police spokesman said.

The Palestine Liberation Organization offered to deploy fighters to separate the warring Shia Muslims, but there was no immediate response from either side.

At least 35 people were killed and 66 wounded in house-to-house combat in Kfar Matta, Kfar Melki, Kfar Beit, Kfar Fila and Jbaa villages in the former apple-growing district of Iklim Tuffah, the spokesman said.

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Death Toll at 60

That increased the overall casualty toll to 60 killed and 149 wounded since fighting erupted on New Year’s Eve in Beirut and in southern Lebanon between Amal, whose name means “hope,” and Hezbollah, or Party of God.

Several hundred masked Hezbollah fighters, hurling grenades, seized the five villages, strung along the main road east from Sidon, in a four-hour battle.

In a counterattack shortly before sundown, about 500 Amal fighters rushed in from other districts of southern Lebanon succeeded in recapturing Kfar Matta, police said. They gave no other details.

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The police spokesman said the Hammoud brothers died in their beds during a grenade attack on the family residence in Kfar Melki.

Five other Amal militiamen manning a checkpoint in the same village were captured and summarily executed by a Hezbollah firing squad, he said.

A hospital spokesman in Sidon, 25 miles from Beirut and the provincial capital of southern Lebanon, said the police casualty estimate probably was too low.

“Some of the corpses brought in earlier were headless, which indicates the ferocity of the battle,” he added.

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“Rescuers are now leaving the dead on the battlefield. They’re just bringing in the wounded, some of whom died on the way to hospital.”

Six Rescuers Wounded

Six rescuers--three from Lebanon’s Red Cross and three from the civil defense department--along with a police officer were wounded by crossfire in Kfar Melki and Kfar Matta.

The rival militias are fighting for mastery of Lebanon’s million-strong Shia Muslim community, the country’s largest sect.

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