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Violence in Lebanon halts Mideast talks

Alarmed by the escalating violence in southern Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that peace talks with Syria would be suspended until the Syrians rein in Islamic militants waging a guerrilla war against Israel.

The Israeli Cabinet held an emergency session Monday night in response to the killing of three Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon, ambushed by Hezbollah, an Islamic militant movement largely supported by Syria. The attack came just one day after Sunday's assassination of Col. Akl Hashem, the second-ranking officer in the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army.

"Israel will have difficulty negotiating peace when the Syrians do not prevent Hezbollah from acting against the Israeli army," Barak said in a statement issued by the Defense Ministry. It is unclear how Barak will measure Syria's compliance with his demand.

Barak also warned that Israel knows "when and where to strike back."

Before and after Hezbollah's strike in Israel's self-declared security zone in south Lebanon, Israeli warplanes staged nine air raids against suspected guerrilla positions, the Israeli army said. Casualties from the airstrikes were not immediately known.

Barak's decision not to resume negotiations is technically a moot point, since the Syrians announced two weeks ago that they would not return to U.S.-brokered peace talks in Shepherdstown, W.Va., because Israel declined to commit in advance to a total withdrawal from the disputed Golan Heights. Nevertheless, it is a rapid turn of events: Less than a month ago, Barak was exercising in the gym in Shepherdstown with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, and an ebullient mood of inevitability pervaded the peace talks.

U.S. officials said the Clinton administration was closely watching the events in south Lebanon. "We condemn the violence and urge restraint on all parties that have influence in the region," said David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Hezbollah receives substantial funding from Iran, but its supplies and weapons are transported through Syrian territory. It is widely perceived that Syria is using Hezbollah as a means of pressuring Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, but experts are divided on how much control the Syrians have over Hezbollah's day-to-day operations.

Israel maintains a presence of about 1,000 soldiers in south Lebanon, patrolling what it calls a "security zone" that is designed to protect Israel's northern border from attack. Monday's ambush took place as a routine patrol was on duty near Beaufort Castle, a Crusader-era fortress three miles from the Israeli border. The Israelis were attacked with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. In addition to the three killed, five were injured.

The deaths bring to four the number of Israeli soldiers killed this past month in Lebanon _ a large number for a country like Israel, which mourns each death like that of a family member. By way of comparison, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in all of 1999. The violence also could further weaken wavering public support for peace negotiations with Syria.

Already, the opposition Likud party is calling for Barak to simply withdraw the Israeli army from south Lebanon, without waiting for a deal with Syria.

From a military standpoint, the assassination of Col. Hashem is likely to have a more serious impact. Hashem, 47, was widely seen as the successor to the 71-year-old Antoine Lahad, commander of the South Lebanon Army. Hashem was killed by a bomb as he was getting into a Mercedes next to his house.

Since the killing on Sunday, Hezbollah has been boasting of the operation by running video footage of the killing on its own television station _ as though daring Israel to retaliate.

Human-rights advocates in Israel Monday urged that Israel refrain from striking back in any way that might harm Lebanon's civilian population.

"Based on past experience and the nature of the warfare in south Lebanon, such attacks fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets and often result in civilian casualties," said B'Tselem, a human-rights group based in Jerusalem.

Last June, after a rocket attack on northern Israel by Hezbollah, the Israelis bombed a power plant in Beirut and several bridges. That attack killed nine Lebanese and wounded 57.

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