Israel Retaliates for Hezbollah Attack in Lebanon

Hezbollah (search) guerrillas shelled Israeli positions in southern Lebanon on Monday for the first time in two months, wounding an Israeli soldier and triggering Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire, security officials said.

Lebanese officials said Hezbollah forces fired rockets and mortar shells at the Israeli military outposts of Roueissat el-Alam, al-Samaka and Ramtha inside the disputed Chebaa Farms (searcharea.

Hezbollah said in a statement that its guerrillas attacked the Israeli positions with rockets, scoring "direct hits" on the "first day of blessed Ramadan," the Muslim holy month of fasting.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli army said an Israeli soldier was lightly wounded.

Israel responded to the attack with airstrikes and 55 mm artillery fire, targeting suspected guerrilla hideouts near villages close to the Israeli-occupied Chebaa Farms, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

Israeli warplanes fired 10 missiles into valleys and mountainous areas near the villages of Kfar Chouba, Hilta and Rashaya al-Foukhar. There was no immediate word on casualties.

In response to the airstrikes, Hezbollah said its guerrillas attacked the Israeli outpost of Abbassiyeh near the border with Lebanon.

An adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (searchblamed Iran and Syria, which back Hezbollah, for Monday's attack.

"Iran and Syria are clearly interested in drawing Israel into an escalation through their Hezbollah proxy," the adviser, Dore Gold, said in a statement.

The Chebaa Farms is uninhabited farmland on the foothills of Mt. Hermon that Lebanon, backed by Syria, claims as its own. Israel captured the territory when its forces seized Syria's Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war. The United Nations says the region is Syrian and that Syria and Israel should negotiate the fate of the Chebaa Farms.

In New York, Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, deplored the clashes, which he said were started by Hezbollah.

"Today's events underscore yet again the acute need for the government of Lebanon to exert full control over the use of force from its territory," he said.

Monday's exchange came amid heightened Israeli-Syrian tensions following Israel's Oct. 5 air raid on what it claimed was a Palestinian militant base deep inside Syria. The attack was in response to a homicide bombing in Israel that killed 20 people.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said Monday that Israel's attacks were aimed at pressuring Lebanon and its neighbor and ally, Syria, to "change their positions and convictions" toward the Middle East peace process. Both nations are fierce foes of Israel, oppose the Jewish state's occupation of Arab territories and support the Palestinian cause.

Lahoud's comments, released in a statement by his office, were made during a meeting with a Syrian military delegation headed by Gen. Hassan Turkmany, Syria's army chief of staff.

During Ramadan, Hezbollah guerrillas often stepped up attacks against Israeli forces during their 18-year occupation of a border zone in southern Lebanon that ended in May 2000.

On Aug. 8, Hezbollah guerrillas attacked three Israeli military positions in Chebaa Farms in retaliation for the killing of a Hezbollah security official south of Beirut. Hezbollah blamed Israel for killing Ali Hussein Saleh, who died when a bomb tore apart his car.

Israel and the United States regard the Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but Lebanon regards it as a legitimate resistance movement against Israeli occupation of Arab lands.