- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

BEIRUT — Lebanese authorities are waiting anxiously for the arrival of two ships carrying fuel oil, a lifeline that will keep the power grids and water pumps from failing in this war-ravaged country.

The ships — the Aphrodite and the Tom Gunhild — have been moored in Cyprus for nearly a week, awaiting a guarantee of safe passage through the Israeli blockade.

Without that, the owners say, insurance is too costly and they cannot make the eight-hour voyage across the Mediterranean.

“The situation is getting terribly critical; in a few days, we won’t have any fuel left,” said a aide to the Lebanese Cabinet. “The country imports 80 percent of everything consumed here; we have a weak industrial sector.”

Shortages have begun to grip the Lebanese capital, which until now has remained relatively well-stocked with food and other necessities.

Rolling blackouts and gasoline shortages have forced many Lebanese to stay at home to conserve fuel and money. Motorists have been lining up for rationed gasoline.

“We have gone to three different gas sites today,” said Joseph Saouma, who sells Oakley sunglasses in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. “Otherwise, we don’t go out. My office is closed, and we must keep a full tank in case we have to leave soon,” he said, gesturing north toward Syria.

The government has set gas prices at about $3 per gallon, for those who can find gas.

Shortly after dawn on Friday, Israeli air strikes destroyed four bridges north of Beirut, severing the last major supply routes from Syria. Between the blockade and the impassable roads, aid workers and retailers say they feel the crunch.

The U.N. World Food Program “is extremely concerned about destruction along what has been the main supply route as it will greatly hamper our ability to deliver essential goods and emergency personnel from the north and across the border in Syria,” the organization said.

The United Nations has moved 10 convoys to southern Lebanon, the hardest-hit region in the country, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has received two ferries full of humanitarian supplies.

But getting flour, milk powder and potable water into isolated villages has proved especially difficult.

In the capital, small grocery stories have seen little or no fresh dairy products for weeks, since planes bombed Lebanon’s dairy-processing factory, Liban Lait, east of Beirut.

“Last week, the milk was bad, but I heard from a neighbor that this yogurt is good,” said a well-dressed woman with six tubs of yogurt in her grocery basket.

She insisted she is not hoarding, “but bringing some to my children and some to other families.”

The Tom Gunhild and the Aphrodite are carrying 30,000 tons of fuel and 50,000 tons of diesel, respectively.

The Israeli government gave “concurrence” for the ships to dock, but a representative of the ships’ owners told the United Nations, which is negotiating the paperwork, that insurance will be too expensive without a written guarantee.

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