ISRAELI tanks bulldozed their way past a United Nations roadblock in Lebanon yesterday and fought Shiite Muslim guerrillas, as violence in the region spilled over into open combat.
A column of 17 tanks broke out of the self-declared Israeli security zone near the village of Yatar in southern Lebanon and took up positions on a hilltop in an area controlled by UNIFIL, said Lt. Gen. Lars-Eric Wahlgren, the UN peacekeeping team's Swedish commander.
"This is a very serious escalation and it could set back what is happening in south Lebanon for many years," said Timur Goksel, spokesman for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.
Thursday's incursion marked the first Israeli attempt to establish a post north of its "security zone" since Israel's 1985 withdrawal from Lebanon, he added.
An Israeli Army spokesman in Jerusalem said the troops had gone further into Lebanon in search of Hizbullah gunners who have been pounding northern Israeli towns with Katyusha rockets since Monday. The soldiers would withdraw when the operation was complete, he said.
Two Fijian UNIFIL soldiers were seriously wounded in cross-fire between the Israeli troops and unidentified Lebanese guerrillas, and were brought to a UN hospital here for treatment. There were no reports of any other casualties.
General Wahlgren told reporters that 250 of his men had "slowed up the [Israeli] operation as much as possible" by blocking the road with trucks and armored personnel carriers, and by using their fists. But they had not fired a shot, he said, and had been unable to prevent the Israeli advance.
Wahlgren said he had "protested to Israel [without success] that they should immediately withdraw from our area of operations," and that he had alerted UN headquarters in New York. Limited operation
Still, Wahlgren said he believes the Israeli attack is a limited operation and not the prelude to a full-scale invasion.
Fighting between the Israeli troops and presumed Hizbullah guerrillas continued into yesterday afternoon. From a vantage point a few hundred yards south of the Lebanese border, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from a valley several miles inside Lebanon, as the hills echoed to the boom of repeated Israeli artillery salvoes. Four Israeli Cobra helicopter gunships clattered overhead beneath low clouds.
The hilltop taken by the Israeli forces, more than a mile north of the "security zone," dominates the Shiite villages of Yatar and Kafra, whose residents were warned to flee Tuesday by Gen. Antoine Lahd, commander of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA).
Israeli and SLA gunners shelled the area heavily on Wednesday, apparently seeking to silence the Katyusha batteries that had been targeting Israeli settlements in retaliation for Israel's assassination of the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Abbas Mussawi,in a helicopter raid on Sunday. Decimating Hizbullah
By moving troops north of the security zone, Israel "is going deeper and deeper and deeper into this matter," a UN security source in south Lebanon said. "Perhaps they feel that this is an opportunity ... to decimate as much as possible the armed elements, a big proportion of whom are Hizbullah."
But the move threatens to unleash even more fighting in the area according to Mr. Goskel. "If the Israelis stay there will be across-the-board mobilization in south Lebanon," he said. "Everyone will take up arms."
To reach their new position, Israeli troops used bulldozers to clear the road of UN vehicles parked so as to block the route. "The fact of life is that you can't do much but go under the UN flag and hope that people respect it," Goksel lamented. Position controls main road
UN observers doubted Israel's claim that its incursion was only a search-and-destroy mission, pointing out that the hilltop was an Israeli position until 1986, and dominates not only the two Shiite villages but also the main East-West road in southern Lebanon.
"Our understanding is that they want to reestablish their old position," Goksel said.
Security sources in south Lebanon said that no Katyushas had been fired from the position taken by the Israeli troops, only 300 yards from a UNIFIL observation post, and expected more rocket attacks.
"Katyushas are a household item in south Lebanon," said Goskel. "And it is easy to move them anywhere because the mountains are so suitable. All you need is one donkey and two rounds."