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Monday, March 1, 1999 Published at 23:18 GMT

World: Middle East

Israeli general killed in Lebanon

Israel is coming under severe pressure to withdraw its forces

A senior Israeli general has been killed in southern Lebanon in an ambush by Hezbollah guerrillas.

Hilary Andersson reports on the second attack on Israeli troops within a week
The Israel army confirmed the death of Brigadier-General Erez Gerstein, the most senior Israeli officer to be killed in Lebanon for 17 years.

The general was killed together with two other Israeli soldiers and a journalist when a powerful remote-controlled bomb exploded shortly before midday (1000 GMT). They were in an convoy travelling near Israeli military headquarters at Marjayoun.

General Gerstein was the chief officer in charge of liaison with Israel's local militia allies, the South Lebanon Army.

[ image: General Gerstein liaised with Israel's SLA allies]
General Gerstein liaised with Israel's SLA allies
He was the most senior officer to die in south Lebanon since General Yekutiel Adam, who had been named head of the Israeli secret service Mossad. He died during an isolated clash in 1982.

In Beirut, Hezbollah claimed reponsibility for the attack and vowed to continue fighting Israel until it withdrew from south Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would not stand for such attacks.

He said: "Certainly, Israel cannot tolerate these kinds of repeated attacks on its territory, on its citizens, and its soldiers, and Israel will know what to do in response."

Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mousawi gives more details of the bombing
Israel retaliated with heavy shelling in southern Lebanon and by firing missiles at the hills of Wadi Zileya in the Beka'a Valley. Israeli warplanes were also reported to have bombarded Hezbollah militia positions in Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.

Second attack

The bombing of the convoy was the second serious blow to Israel in the space of a week. Five days ago, three Israeli soldiers were killed and five wounded in a fierce battle involving helicopter gunships and warplanes.

The clashes in have sparked demonstrations in Israel by groups calling for the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.

[ image: Self-declared security zone in Lebanon]
Self-declared security zone in Lebanon
Israeli forces have occupied the 15-mile strip of land in south Lebanon since 1978. It argues it is a necessary buffer zone to protect Israel from attacks by Islamic militants.

But Hezbollah and other guerillas are fighting to evict Israel and the South Lebanon Army.

The Israeli Government has recently raised the prospect of negotiating a withdrawal, but it wants the Syrian-backed Lebanese Government to agree to security guarantees first.

For their part, the Lebanese insist on an unconditional withdrawal in line with a 1978 UN resolution.

The BBC's correspondent in Jerusalem, Hilary Andersson, says this latest incident is one of the most embarrassing defeats in some time for the Israelis. And it is likely to prompt a public outcry in a country with a conscript army.

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