Three Soldiers Killed, 25 Wounded in Fighting Close to Lebanese Border

Three Israel Defense Forces soldiers were killed and 25 were injured during clashes yesterday with Hezbollah fighters in around the southwestern Lebanese village of Aita Shab. Several Hezbollah militants were killed. Five combined-command forces are deployed in South Lebanon, in the area along the border between Metula and Zarit. Thousands of soldiers are taking part in the operation, the largest since the start of hostilities last month.

In Aita Shab, close to where Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were abducted three weeks ago, a paratroops unit has been operating since Monday. At about 11 A.M. yesterday, soldiers in two houses in the village were hit by anti-tank missiles. Initial investigation indicate that they were hit by TOW and Sagger missiles, some of which were fired from some distance away.

A soldier from Paratroops Battalion 890 was killed in the strike on the first house. In the second house, two soldiers from Battalion 101 were killed. Fifteen paratroops were wounded slightly in these and other incidents.

As has happened before, rescue work was hampered by heavy Hezbollah fire. Since the injuries of the survivors were not serious, their evacuation was postponed until nightfall.

Senior Northern Command officers said recently that Hezbollah has on several occasions discovered hiding places used by the IDF, as in yesterday's incidents in Aita Shab and last week in Maroun Ras, when a paratroop officer was killed and several soldiers were wounded. These casualties were also from Battalion 101.

At least six Hezbollah fighters were killed in yesterday's battles. IDF sources said the resistance in Aita Shab was relatively stiff. The fighting there is part of a wider IDF effort combining two divisional commands (Division 162 and Galilee Division 91) and five brigade commands.

The IDF continued its slow advance in the eastern sector of South Lebanon yesterday, taking up positions in Taibe, near the Litani River. A senior officer told Haaretz that the operation was moving "slowly and carefully." He said that about 20 Hezbollah fighters had been killed since Saturday night in clashes with Nahal and Armored Corps soldiers, in addition to the "couple of dozen" Hezbollah fighters injured in Israel Air Force sorties.

The Israel Air Force kept a low profile yesterday, concentrating on providing cover for ground troops. The 48-hour pause in the air war declared by Israel ends early this morning. A few Katyusha rockets were fired at Israel yesterday, landing mostly in the area between Ma'alot and Nahariya in the Western Galilee. They fell in open areas and caused no injuries or damage.

According to Northern Command head Brigadier General Alon Friedman, "Our force was well-positioned and responded very well. We succeeded in hitting a large number of terrorists."

In estimating the likely duration of the fighting, Friedman said yesterday, "The amount of time needed is a function of the amount of territory. The plan is modular and graduated. We are meeting the goals set for us."

Northern Command officials said yesterday that in the past three weeks the IDF has destroyed a large number of Hezbollah's rocket launchers and ammunitions bunkers, but the organization still has launchers capable of reaching Israel.

"Hezbollah hasn't fired [Katyushas] in the past two days out of its own interests," Friedman said. He said the Northern Command expects the rocket barrages to be renewed.

"In the day or two prior to the Hezbollah cease-fire we noticed a decline in the the number of rockets fired and a northward move of the launch areas," Friedman said, "as well as a trend toward launching rockets from within the villages, from less permanent positions. That accounts for the decline in the precision of the rockets from the level at the beginning of the fighting."

According to the Reuters news agency, 620 people have been killed in Lebanon since the start of hostilities, most of them civilians. The Lebanese Ministry of Health put the toll at 750, including bodies buried under rubble. The Associated Press reported that 461 civilians, 25 Lebanese Army troops and 46 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Lebanon.