Reports spread quickly Thursday morning throughout this south Lebanese port city that the Israelis were coming back. Truckloads of refugees fled from Shiite villages in the hills above Sidon as hundreds of Israeli troops -- backed by tanks and helicopters -- stormed at least three villages, one no more than six miles from the port.
``We do not go to Sidon, we go to Beirut,'' said one man in the village of Anqoum as his wife loaded bedding into their battered station wagon.
Further down the road toward the Israeli positions, groups of young Shiite men stood nervously fingering Kalashnikov rifles as they strained to see if the Israelis were moving toward them from the neighboring village of Houmine.
An Israeli Army spokesman in Tel Aviv said that 20 villagers he described as terrorists were shot and killed in two villages -- Kfar Melki and Houmine during the raid.
[CBS television reports that one of its cameramen, a Lebanese, was killed in Kfar Melki yesterday when a shell landed near the spot he was filming. A CBS soundman was reported as missing and a driver was wounded.]
The Israeli assault outside the area it withdrew to last month came just after a tenuous cease-fire went into effect on the outskirts of Sidon, where Lebanese Army units and Muslim militias have been battling the Christian Lebanese Forces militiamen since Monday.
Many here say it is unlikely the Israelis would advance on the city they withdrew from only last month. And an Israeli Army spokesman in Tel Aviv yesterday denied that its troops intend to approach or intervene in Sidon. But news that the Israelis were in the hills above the port city added to the confusion and tension.
There is growing fear here that the fighting in Sidon will not be resolved by negotiations, and that if it spreads it could engulf this country again in civil war. At time of writing Thursday, eight people were reported killed and some 40 wounded in the fighting.
Christians are in a minority in Sidon, and feel threatened by the Muslims. The Lebanese Forces militiamen who are fighting support Samir Geagea, the leader of a revolt within the Christian community against President Amin Gemayel, himself a Christian.
Mr. Geagea controls the largest Christian militia. He has accused Mr. Gemayel of having made too many concessions to this nation's Muslim community. Many Christians in Sidon appear to agree with Geagea's views.
Sidon officials were convinced the Israeli raids Thursday were made to help their onetime Christian allies, who have been shelling Sidon from the village of Abra and exchanging fire with Lebanese Army troops there.
In the past four days, the fighting in the outskirts of Sidon had driven an unknown number of Muslims from their villages and into the city. Some Sidon officials feared that the Israelis were hoping to exploit the conflict to divert attention from their withdrawing troops.
``This is the plot to divide the people,'' said Mayor Ahmed Khalash, sitting in a makeshift office. He has all but abandoned city hall, a tempting target for shelling.
``We hope [the fighting] stops because if it doesn't it will be very dangerous for Lebanon. When the fire starts, it can go bigger and bigger,'' Khalash said Thursday. As he spoke, the sound of heavy shelling and automatic weapons fire could be heard close by.
Khalash and other officials insist that the people of Sidon don't want intercommunal militia fighting to spread in their community.
``We have nothing against the Christians,'' said Dr. Nazih Bizri, a member of parliament representing south Lebanon. ``They are our family and members of our community.''
But a pastor in a Christian neighborhood of Sidon said his parishioners were terrified.
``They fear a massacre,'' said the pastor, who spoke only on condition that his name not be used. ``My wife and I have sent our children to spend the nights in a Christian village to the east. I am deciding what to do -- to stay or go -- every five or 10 minutes.''
``I've had three Christian families in the last two days come to me and say they are packing their suitcases and going to America,'' said one Western relief worker here.
Although an Israeli Army spokesman said Israeli troops have no intention of entering Sidon, the damage could already have been done.
So far, leaders of the largest Muslim militias have mostly kept their men out of the fighting in Sidon. But if they and their backers, the Syrians, become convinced of Israeli involvement on the Christian side, the situation could escalate quickly.
Since Israel announced its intention to end its 33-month occupation of the south, Shiite guerrillas from villages around Sidon and elsewhere have hit hard at the retreating troops.
The Israelis, in return, have instituted the so-called ``iron fist'' policy -- raiding villages, arresting hundreds of people, blowing up homes, and shooting dozens of villagers they identify as terrorists.
Their raids Thursday were portrayed by the Israelis as simply another security action.
But analysts here speculate that the Israelis at least would like to see an exchange of population that would drive Christian villagers further south, into the zone Israel hopes to keep as a security buffer above its border once its withdrawal is completed.