At least 23 Lebanese were killed today as Israeli troops with helicopters and tanks moved out of their occupied zone in southern Lebanon and raided four villages in the area east of Sidon, where the Lebanese Army and Christian militiamen have been fighting.
The dead included at least 21 residents of the villages, according to Israeli and Lebanese accounts, and two Lebanese newsmen working for CBS-TV. The two were killed when they were hit by shells fired by an Israeli tank as they filmed near Kfar Melki, one of the raided villages.
CBS President Edward M. Joyce, in a sharp message to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, said that, according to witnesses, the shooting was "an unprovoked and deliberate attack" and he urged that Israel "take rigorous and appropriate action to prevent the recurrence of such outrageous behavior by Israeli forces."
It was the highest toll in a day of Israeli raids since March 11, when a raid on Zrariyeh, 12 miles southwest of here, killed 34 Lebanese.
Israeli military officials said most of those killed today were armed, and they explained the high toll by saying that two of the raided towns contained "concentrations of terrorists" and "some of them resisted," Washington Post correspondent Edward Walsh reported from Jerusalem.
The Israelis said they captured dozens of suspected guerrillas and seized vast caches of weapons, ammunition and explosives. One Israeli soldier was slightly wounded, officials said, and an Israeli soldier wounded in Lebanon on March 8 died today.
The raids today were similar to those conducted earlier this month in predominantly Shiite Moslem villages said to be strongholds of guerrillas who have been attacking the Israeli Army behind its front line near the Litani River, 15 miles south of here. Troops dynamited houses, rounded up young men for interrogation and sent hundreds of refugees fleeing toward Sidon, from which the Israelis withdrew last month.
Lebanese civilians headed toward Sidon through this largely Moslem village just west of Humin, one of the raided villages, said that Jebaa, a mixed Christian-Moslem village, and Kfar Melki, which is predominantly Moslem, had been raided by the Israelis.
Timur Goksel, spokesman for the U.N. peace-keeping force in southern Lebanon, said that a small Israeli Army force entered Srifa, in the zone controlled by the Finnish U.N. contingent, and rounded up about 100 men for interrogation.
The raids followed a month-long crackdown on Shiite towns in southern Lebanon to stem growing guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops who moved to the area in the first phase of their pullback on Feb. 16.
Lebanese officials in Sidon said they feared the Israeli thrust toward the city was a precursor to a wider sweep intended to isolate Shiite guerrillas in the Sidon area and contain them far from the new Israeli front line.
"They have reoccupied the whole area they left. What are their intentions? I don't know. Ask the United Nations," said Nazih Bizri, a member of the Lebanese parliament from Sidon.
He added, "Maybe they are reinforcements for the Christian militia, or maybe it is to besiege the Lebanese resistance in the area. Two weeks ago, they declared they will attack all the leaders of the resistance. But the danger is, they can reoccupy the whole liberated area."
Despite Bizri's assessment, and widespread fears in Sidon that the Israeli Army thrusts could reach the city, there was no indication that the operation was any more ambitious than the kind of hit-and-run attacks the Israelis have conducted recently on other villages outside of their area of control.
There also appeared to be no link between today's Israeli sweep and the battles that have raged intermittently for four days between the Lebanese Forces Christian militia and Moslem guerrillas supported by units of the Lebanese Army.
Despite a cease-fire reached between the Army and the Lebanese Forces last night, some fighting continued east of Sidon in mostly Moslem villages just west of predominantly Christian villages higher in the hills.
Cars and trucks filled with refugees from villages in the path of the new Israeli sweep could be seen fleeing toward Sidon today through this hillside village, the last population center before Humin, a few miles to the southeast.
Lebanese civilians headed west said Israeli troops had dynamited six houses in Humin and had rounded up men for questioning.
It was on the outskirts of Kfar Melki, four miles east of here, that Toufiq Ghazawi, 46, a cameraman, and soundman Bashir Metni, 35, both free-lancers working for CBS, were killed and their driver was critically wounded, losing both legs. French journalist Marine Jacquemin, who was at the scene, told Reuter that an Israeli tank fired two shells at the CBS crew from 500 yards.
"We were filming and interviewing and they shot at us deliberately," Jacquemin, of the French TV network TF1, said. She said Israeli troops also fired small arms at a film crew of the London-based UPITN service.
An Israeli Army spokesman said the CBS crew was hit when an Israeli tank opened fire on "armed men who were taking firing positions." He said the crew could have been mistaken for part of the guerrilla group, Walsh reported. But the spokesman said he had no reports of any other casualties in the incident.
The spokesman said the Israeli Army "does not shoot at civilians, including journalists, who are clearly identified as such," but he warned that "if journalists enter territory in which armed terrorists are located, they take upon themselves the risk of getting hurt."
CBS President Joyce, in his message to Peres, said two witnesses to the shooting had told CBS "that our camera crew was taping a UPITN camera car that had been damaged by Israeli troops, that our own car was clearly and unmistakably marked as a camera car, and fire by an Israeli tank was directed at our people with intent to kill."
"We urge immediate and energetic action by your government to investigate the responsibility for this tragic and shameful occurrence," Joyce said, "and once the facts are clear, to take rigorous and appropriate action to prevent the recurrence of such outrageous behavior by Israeli forces. This is not the first instance, as you know, of attacks by the Israeli military on innocent journalists in Lebanon, but it is the most wanton and tragic, and it demands your complete attention and action."
An official of UPITN in London told Reuter that one of its cameramen, Vladimir Popov, was injured by windshield shards scattered by small-arms fire directed by Israeli troops at the journalists.
Despite the cease-fire agreement last night calling for the deployment of Lebanese Army troops in villages east of Sidon, there was sporadic fighting during the night and this morning, with some shells hitting the coastal highway on the approach to Sidon.
Residents of Sidon said mortar shells hit main streets near the city's commercial center. It was the first time that area had been hit by shelling.
Lebanon's Cabinet, meeting yesterday for the first time since the 6,000-man Lebanese Forces under rebel commander Samir Geagea revolted against Syrian involvement in Lebanese politics, decided to instruct the Army to deal firmly with those fighting in Sidon.
But the Christian militia's commanders reportedly asked that the Army's 98th Battalion, which has been engaged in the battles east of Sidon, be withdrawn. The Christian militia radio stations claimed that the soldiers in the battalion were followers of Sheik Said Shaaban, the Sunni Moslem fundamentalist leader in Tripoli, Lebanon.