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Israeli-backed militia chief reaffirms role. Lahad signals Israel's continued support of S. Lebanon militia

The commander of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army says his militia has recovered from recent attacks by Lebanese Shiite Muslim guerrillas and will establish more outposts in Israel's self-proclaimed ``security zone.'' Gen. Antoine Lahad spoke to reporters yesterday, at his first press conference since 15 of his militiamen died earlier this month in clashes with what Israel and the South Lebanon Army (SLA) claim were members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hizbullah group.

The press conference at this northern Israeli settlement, which was arranged by the Israeli Army spokesman, appeared designed to convey two messages: The SLA is still intact, and Israel remains committed to supporting the SLA's estimated 2,500 men both militarily and financially.

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``Even though we have suffered some heavy casualties,'' General Lahad said through an interpreter, ``militarily in no case did the attackers succeed. The SLA was able to repulse all of the attacks.''

In addition to the 15 SLA soldiers who were killed in attacks on four outposts, 22 were wounded and three Israeli soldiers were wounded, according to the Israeli Army spokesman's office. Two SLA positions in the north-central area of the so-called security zone were briefly overrun by the attackers before they were recaptured by the SLA.

The well-planned attack triggered a review by Israeli military strategists of the Army's policy in south Lebanon and raised the possibility of an Israeli attack on Shiite villages in the south.

Since withdrawing the bulk of its troops from Lebanon 15 months ago, Israel has continued to give money, weapons, training, and advisers to the SLA. The militia mans checkpoints, patrols roads and villages, and conducts searches in the security zone. Israel's aim has been to use the Israeli Army as backup for the SLA and to keep Israeli troops in south Lebanon to a minimum. The Israelis say that no more than 500 Israeli soldiers patrol the security zone; Western analysts put the number at closer to 1,000.

For the past 15 months, the security zone worked relatively well for Israel. Virtually all efforts by Palestinian or Lebanese guerrillas to infiltrate into northern Israel through the security zone have been foiled -- either by the SLA, by UNIFIL (the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon), or by the Israelis themselves. But in recent weeks, the growing strength of Hizbullah (``Party of God''), which is backed by the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, has threatened to bring down what one Israeli military correspondent has dubbed ``Israel's house of cards'' in the security zone.

Lahad's press conference underscored the fact that, for now, Israel has opted to maintain the troubled status quo -- with the largely Christian SLA patrolling a 5-to-10-mile-wide strip across south Lebanon where most inhabitants are Shiites. Israel has already said it is increasing its contribution to Lahad's forces and upgrading the SLA's weaponry.

A few Israeli analysts continue to voice the dissenting view that Israel should allow UNIFIL and Amal, the moderate Shiite militia, to handle the bulk of security operations in south Lebanon. Analysts such as Clinton Bailey, who previously advised the Army on south Lebanon policy, argue that Amal will prevent Palestinians and more radical Shiites from rebuilding the south as a launch pad for attacks on Israel. Amal, Dr. Bailey says, is committed to helping the local, rural Shiite communities seek a semblance of stability and realizes that this can only happen if the border area remains quiet.

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Bailey and a handful of other Israeli analysts broadly agree with the UN contention that Israel's presence in the security zone is an ongoing irritant undermining Amal's credibility and that Israel's support of the SLA may eventually drag Israeli troops back into the south if UNIFIL is withdrawn and the SLA cannot hold out.

Lahad asserts that his militia will be able to stand on its own and continue to police the south. But even the most optimistic Israeli military analysts believe Israel will be forced to continue pouring money and materiel into the SLA for years to come.

Israel maintains it cannot afford to pull out of south Lebanon until it is convinced that some force will remain that can prevent guerrilla infiltration into Israel.

Lahad insisted that Israel's support for the SLA is mainly financial and logistical. ``The reinforcement coming from Israel has been very limited,'' the dapper former Lebanese Army officer said. ``The Israelis have not taken part in any actions since the attacks. They are there as reserves. The SLA is strong enough to pass from defensive positions to offensive positions outside the security zone,'' Lahad said.

In response to reporters' questions, Lahad denied reports that the SLA has been indiscriminately shelling Shiite villages outside the security zone. ``Most of the people in the villages we shell are in fact armed enemies and not civilians,'' Lahad said. ``Only a small minority in these villages are civilians. These villages have become bases for operations against our positions,'' he alleged.

Lahad also denied allegations by the International Red Cross and Amnesty International that prisoners detained at the SLA-operated Khiam prison in the security zone have been subjected to torture, and said he would ``consider'' requests to visit the prison.

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