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Israeli forces kill leader of Hezbollah

Israeli forces killed the leader of the pro-Iranian Party of God in Lebanon on Sunday in a lightning strike by helicopter gunships that also killed his wife, son and at least four bodyguards.

The dramatic raid on a motorcade carrying the Shiite Moslem leader, Sheik Abbas Musawi, kept this part of the Middle East locked in a new cycle of violence that was likely to cast a pall on U.S.-brokered peace talks scheduled to resume in Washington next week.

Nevertheless, there was no sign that any of the parties were thinking about withdrawing from the talks.

About the time that the Israelis swooped down on Musawi's convoy, Syria and Lebanon announced in Damascus that they would go to Washington "to give peace a new chance."

Israel and a joint team of Jordanians and Palestinians also are planning to attend despite heightened tensions after a weekend of bloodshed.

It began late Friday with Arab guerrillas slipping into an Israeli army camp and killing three soldiers with axes, knives and a pitchfork.

Senior Israeli officials said the attack was the work of the mainstream Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Early Sunday, Israel retaliated with air strikes on two Palestinian refugee camps at Ain Hilwe and Rashidiye in southern Lebanon that killed four people, including two children, and wounded nearly a dozen others.

Despite the closeness of the timing, the attack on Musawi, 16 hours after the attack on the Israeli soldiers, may not have been related to the other incidents.

By its very nature, it seemed to have required careful planning, making it unlikely, in the view of some military experts, that it would have been cobbled together in a hurry.

According to reports from Lebanon, two Israeli helicopters descended on a seven-vehicle convoy carrying the 39-year-old sheik and his family after they left a rally in the southern Lebanese town of Jibchit. Rockets blew apart the Mercedes-Benz carrying the sheik and two Range-Rovers carrying bodyguards.

A spokesman for the Party of God said the sheik, his wife, Siham, and their 6-year-old son, Hussein, were burned to death in the car.

Hezbollah, or Party of God, was considered the umbrella group for the Shiite Moslem holders of Western hostages in Lebanon. Musawi was considered a moderate in the fundamentalist group and played a key role in the freeing of Western hostages last year.

At the rally in Jibchit just before the attack, Musawi denounced the Arab-Israeli peace talks and accused the United States of being power mad, Reuters reported.

"America wants to control the fountains of water, exactly as it controlled the oil fountains," he said. "America wants to dominate everything."

In Jerusalem, Israeli army spokesmen confirmed only Musawi's death, but they did not dispute reports that others had also been killed or accounts on Israeli television that the raiders had fired automatic weapons at survivors who ran from their vehicles in an effort to escape.

From Israel's vantage, the assassination of Musawi was a settlement of old scores for countless raids on its soldiers in Lebanon and in Israel by Hezbollah, which is committed to waging a holy war against Israel and to attacking Western interests.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens denounced the party Sunday night as a "murderous, terrorist organization," and he said Sheik Musawi, elected secretary general of the pro-Iranian group in 1990, was "a man with lots of blood on his hands.

"We can assume the fact he was killed was not entirely coincidental," Arens said when asked if the ambush was aimed at assassinating Sheik Musawi.

Arens sought to connect the raid in Lebanon to the deaths of the three Israeli soldiers by saying: "It's a message to all terrorist organizations: Whoever opens an account with us will have the account closed by us.

"This is true for all the bands, all the terrorist organizations, all the leaders," he said.

On the Arabs' side, Israel was denounced for its raids Sunday.

The Party of God issued a statement in Beirut calling the attack on Musawi "a vengeful, cowardly assault."

From her home in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, deplored the retaliatory strike on the refugee camps. "To use the air force and state policy to kill women and children, that's not terrorism?" Ashrawi said.

"But it demonstrates again that this has to stop," she said, "and the only way it will stop is to have a peace settlement."

In Tunis, Tunisia, Reuters quoted a PLO spokesman, Ahmed Abderrahman, as saying three Palestinians presumed responsible for the bloody attack on the Israeli soldiers had exercised "their legitimate right to resist against the Israeli army of occupation." Theirs was "a resistance act, like the French resistance against Nazi occupation," he said.

Some Israeli press commentators, while expressing outrage over the dead-of-night raid on the soldiers as most of them slept in a lightly guarded bivouac area, alsodrew a distinction between this assault and recent terrorist acts against civilian settlers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As the three slain soldiers were buried Sunday, newspaper editorials and political figures focused on the apparently lax security at the camp. Government culpability, as well as that of the guerrillas, was a recurring theme in many commentaries.

Only a few soldiers were on hand at the outpost, which lay in Israel proper, a few miles from the West Bank's northern boundary.

Many of them were recent immigrants who had been in the army only a few weeks and who, in the words of a senior officer quoted by an Israeli newspaper, "barely knew how to tie their shoelaces."

At his weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said that negligence was possibly involved and that the Israeli public was waiting for the outcome of an inquiry to see "the lessons to be learned from this grave occurrence."

Almost inevitably, the incident had a domestic political context as Israel's two major parties, Likud and Labor, prepared to choose their leaders this week for June 23 parliamentary elections.

Normally, an attack of this sort could be expected to benefit a security-minded man like Shamir. But even the appearance of military laxness could hurt him, and therefore, some political commentators said, the swift retaliatory raids against the Palestinian camps may have had a political as much as a tactical component.

In Washington, the State Department on Sunday withheld comment on events in the Middle East, urging "maximum restraint."

In response to questions, spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We are concerned at the rising cycle of violence in the Middle East in recent days. We regret the loss of lives in Israel and Lebanon in recent days and urge all concerned to exercise maximum restraint."

_ Information from AP was used in this report.