Four Israeli soldiers burned to death and six others were badly injured in a blaze ignited by friendly fire on Thursday during clashes in southern Lebanon that also left four Muslim guerrillas dead, according to Israeli officials.
The troops were caught in a brush fire on the edge of the Israeli-occupied zone. Israel said the blaze was started by its own helicopter or artillery fire.
“The brush fire chased the soldiers. They tried to escape but were trapped. The fire was moving faster than they were, and, of course, they were carrying explosives,” said government spokesman David Bar-Illan. “Everything that could happen went wrong.”
Israeli officials said the dead guerrillas belonged to a pro-Syrian Lebanese Islamic group called Amal. In Beirut, both Amal and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia claimed their forces were responsible for the Israeli casualties.
In announcing the deaths, the Israel Defense Forces said it is appointing a commission of inquiry into the “unique” event.
Israeli and United Nations officials said Israeli troops clashed with guerrillas early Thursday south of the Litani River, in a dry area that has long been a favored infiltration route for the guerrillas into the Israeli-occupied zone in southern Lebanon.
Four guerrillas died in the initial clash. When Israeli soldiers encountered another rebel unit, they reportedly called for more air support.
“That is what doomed them. The brush was so dry,” Bar-Illan said. “The fire began on the opposite slope as a result of fire by artillery or helicopter. The wind picked up suddenly, and they decided to evacuate, but it was too late,” he said.
Thursday’s airstrike against Hezbollah positions was the third in just over a week and brought the month’s death toll for fighting in southern Lebanon to at least 26.
Israel set up the nine-mile-wide security zone in 1985 as a buffer against incursions by guerrillas into northern Israeli towns. Hezbollah and Amal are fighting to oust the Israelis from Lebanon, which Syria dominates.
In Beirut, a spokesman for Hezbollah told Reuters news agency that the group’s guerrillas had clashed with Israeli troops in the Hojeir valley hours after Israeli soldiers fought with Amal guerrillas in the same area.
“Islamic Resistance guerrillas used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades against a Zionist foot patrol, and our fighters witnessed many of the soldiers being killed and wounded,” he said.
An Amal spokesman told the news agency that three Israeli soldiers were killed and five wounded in clashes with its guerrillas in the Hojeir valley.
Israel and Syria broke off peace negotiations in March 1996. The two countries negotiated on and off for more than four years over an Israeli withdrawal on the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, but reached no agreement.
On Thursday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said it will publish secret minutes of talks held by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in which Rabin said he would negotiate a complete withdrawal from the Golan if he could know in advance that Syria was prepared to accept his terms for peace and security arrangements on the heights.
Responding to the report, Israel’s former negotiator with Syria, Itamar Rabinovich, said Israel had agreed in principle to discuss pulling out from the Golan Heights but that Syrian President Hafez Assad wanted firmer assurances.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, finishing a three-country Asian tour, said the previous government had made no firm commitments. His Likud Party government, which came to power in June 1996, has taken a much tougher line, vowing not to return the full Golan Heights.