Israel and its local militia allies in south Lebanon are maintaining a top secret jail just north of the Lebanese-Israeli border where detainees are held in appalling conditions and subjected to beatings and electric-shock torture, according to former inmates and international relief officials in the area. They say the prisoners, 70 or 80 in number, are held in underground cells beneath the former Lebanese Army barracks at Khiam, a Lebanese hillside town about four miles from the Israeli border in the eastern sector. The barracks are now used as a local military headquarters by the Israelis, who occupy south Lebanon, and the Israeli-funded and trained South Lebanon Army (SLA) under Gen. Antoine Lahad.
[A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces in Jerusalem acknowledged that the jail exists, but said it is run solely by the SLA. ``To the best of the IDF's knowledge,'' the spokesman said, ``the prisoners are not held underground and they receive adequate supplies of food and medical attention when needed.''
[In response to the torture allegations, the spokesman said ``we cannot deny something to which we have no connection.]
Former inmates say the Khiam prison is largely unknown to the outside world except for the few who have been released.
International relief officials in the area say that under international law, Israel -- as the occupying power -- is responsible for the activities at Khiam, whether they are carried out by Israeli officers or by their Lebanese allies.
[According to Michelle Mercier, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, ``the ICRC has applied many times to the South Lebanon Army and the Israeli armed forces to visit the center to check conditions, but this access has not been received.'']
Khiam falls well within the ``security belt'' the Israelis say they intend to maintain under SLA control after their own official withdrawal. The secret jail there appears to have been reserved for certain categories of ``security'' prisoners rather than straightforward guerrilla suspects.
One clearly terrified former inmate who spoke in conditions of strict secrecy in a village within the security zone said he had once been a member of the Israeli-backed militia. He was picked up from his home and taken to the Khiam prison, apparently after being falsely denounced by an informer.
``I was held for several weeks. You would not believe the conditions there,'' he said. Pointing to burn marks on his fingers, he added: ``They tortured me by attaching electrodes to my fingers, with wires linked to a field telephone, the handle of which was then turned. It was agony. The torture was carried out by Lahad's men, but Israeli intelligence officers were present.''
``Apart from the torture, beatings were regular, sometimes carried out on alternate days without even any interrogation. We were crammed into tiny cells measuring only one meter by half a meter.''
The climate of fear and suspicion prevailing in the area is such that the informant would speak only in hushed tones and fell silent when members of his close family entered the room. Fear of being detained again has apparently ensured that those who have been released keep silent about their experiences.
Khiam is completely separate from the much larger and well-known detention center at Ansar, which was dismantled last week after some 750 prisoners were released and more than 1,100 others transferred to centers inside Israel.