Two Israeli soldiers killed in Hezbollah revenge attack

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JERUSALEM — Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven wounded, including a Golani Brigade battalion commander, in the fiercest clash in the Lebanon security zone since the devastating air raids last June.

The gun battle with Hezbollah guerrillas took place in the thick brush of Wadi Salouki early Tuesday, sparking artillery duels, air strikes and fires that filled the gorge with smoke.

The army said the Golani troops killed three Hezbollah gunmen in two firefights.

The two Israel Defense Force soldiers killed were identified as St.-Sgt. Eyal Gueta, 21, of Kfar Yona, and Sgt. Doron Hershkowitz, 20, of Karmiel. The casualties were evacuated under fire by helicopter to hospitals in Israel. Three were listed in serious condition, two with moderate wounds, and two with light injuries.

The deaths brought to 12 the number of Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon this year.

Before news of the fatalities was released Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that "there is a certain escalation in Lebanon. We will continue to do everything possible to pull the IDF out of Lebanon and to place the forces along the international border, so that there will be quiet in this area."

Shortly after 7 a.m. Tuesday, a Golani squad encountered what turned out to be a squad of Hezbollah gunmen on its way to place bombs, the army said. A number of Golani soldiers were wounded in this firefight, but the force pursued the gunmen, killing one of them. During the chase Gueta was killed, the army said.

At this point, a force led by the battalion commander set out to help evacuate the wounded and continue the attack. A second firefight ensued, in which Hershkowitz fell and more soldiers were wounded, including the battalion commander, a lieutenant-colonel. His force killed two Hezbollah gunmen, the army said.

The army said the Hezbollah gunmen had been carrying powerful bombs.

Hezbollah announced that the gunfight was in retaliation for the death of Ali Deeb, a regional Hezbollah field commander, who was killed Monday by a roadside bomb in Sidon, Lebanon.

Referring to Deeb's death, Foreign Minister David Levy said that "things happen in other countries all the time and they do not necessarily have anything to do with us."

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.

Hezbollah has vowed to avenge the death of Deeb, better known as Abu Hassan. But Katyusha rocket attacks were not expected, and the IDF did not order residents in northern Israel to spend the night in shelters.

Reacting to the assassination of Deeb, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz Tuesday morning suggested it was the result of a power struggle among the guerrillas.

"We are not in the habit of interfering in the internal rivalry among the terrorist organizations in Lebanon," he told military reporters.

Mofaz added that Hezbollah is not escalating the conflict by firing rockets on Israeli civilians because the effects of last June's air raids are still reverberating.

"There's a war in Lebanon," Mofaz said, "and without a doubt since our air attacks in June against Hezbollah targets and infrastructure there, there has been a deterrence concerning the firing of Katyusha rockets into Israeli territory. We planned it that way and the results speak for themselves."

Mofaz said that Hezbollah has doubled its attacks this year and the past two months have seen a dramatic rise in guerrilla activity.

In Beirut, thousands of Hezbollah supporters and clerics attended Deeb's funeral Tuesday. His coffin was draped in the Hezbollah machine gun-emblazoned flag and he was proclaimed a martyr.

"[Israel] will not shake our resolve or dampen the spirit of our resistance fighters. They have taken away the bodies of our martyrs but not their spirit," Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said before leading the crowd in special prayers.