Israeli soldiers killed as Syrian talks loom

JERUSALEM — With Israel and Syria poised to resume negotiations in Washington, violence has flared up again in Lebanon.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed and three others wounded Sunday, when gunmen ambushed a patrol in the southern Lebanon security zone.

Two of those killed — Sgt. Maj. Mohammed Hayeb, 27, and Sgt. Maj. Hisham Rakhal, 29 — were Israel Defense Force trackers from the Bedouin community of Beit Zarzir in the Jezreel Valley.

The third person killed was identified as Sgt. Hillel Rosner, 19, of Tel Aviv.

Rosner was buried Sunday night; Hayeb and Rakhal were buried the next day.

The wounded soldiers were flown to a hospital in Israel, where the condition of one was described as moderate. The other two were lightly wounded.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah fundamentalist movement claimed responsibility for the attack.

Israel's Cabinet was holding its weekly session when news of the attack arrived.

Security officials briefed Cabinet members on the initial details of the incident, which drew renewed calls from government ministers that Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, act to restrain Hezbollah activities.

Some ministers said they expected the latest flare-up in southern Lebanon to be raised at the end of this month in Washington, when top-level Israeli and Syrian military officials meet to discuss security arrangements tied to achieving a peace agreement between the two countries.

Last week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent a strong message to Syria via American intermediaries, calling on Damascus to restrain Hezbollah.

The message was sent in the wake of a series of Katyusha rocket attacks that Hezbollah launched on residents of northern Israel. Eight Israelis were wounded in the assaults, which also caused extensive property damage.

Damascus has not yet responded to Rabin's message.

But the official Syrian media linked the situation in southern Lebanon to regional peace talks. The Syrian state-run daily newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial Monday that only a full Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon could stop the cycle of violence.

The latest incident occurred about 8 a.m. Sunday, when an Israeli unit came under anti-tank and machine gun fire while on patrol in the security zone.

After an initial inquiry into the incident, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and the head of the northern command, Maj. Gen. Amiram Levine, praised the unit for following correct procedures after they came under attack.

Radio reports from Lebanon said two Hezbollah gunmen were killed during the exchange of fire.

The Israeli casualties came toward the end of the clash, when two rockets struck the patrol.

Meanwhile, Uri Lubrani, the official in charge of Israeli policy in Lebanon, said that only a political solution would halt the hostilities in Lebanon.

"There is no military solution to the situation in South Lebanon," he told Israel Radio. "Hezbollah is exploiting every opportunity to halt the peace process."

"If Israel takes massive [military] measures in response, that is exactly what the Iranians and Hezbollah want," he added.