- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

BEIRUT — With fears of a humanitarian crisis growing, Israel opened up its blockade of Lebanon’s ports to allow shiploads of aid to arrive yesterday, and tens of thousands of Lebanese fled north to escape Israeli army incursions.

In Beirut, a steady stream of foreign nationals continued to line up to board ships and planes that would take them away from the violence.

About 35,000 Lebanese filled the southern port town of Sidon as they searched for a place to stay or a way to get farther north. With the town of 100,000 unable to absorb more refugees, many families were joining Palestinians in a refugee camp.

Israel lifted its sea blockade Friday after Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman said his country would open a humanitarian corridor for food, medicine and other supplies. A Greek warship carrying 22 tons of humanitarian supplies arrived Friday in Beirut, followed yesterday by another with 14 tons of supplies, the Greek Foreign Ministry said. An Italian navy ship was expected today.

It was not clear how the supplies would get to isolated towns and villages in the south, the center of the war zone, where main routes and many side roads through the mountains have been cut off by Israeli air strikes. Missiles and artillery continue to fall in the area, making the roads still dangerous.

Sidon, 20 miles south of Beirut, has swelled with 35,000 refugees from the south, Mayor Abdul-Rahman al-Bizri said. A constant stream of cars flowed down the main street. Vegetable markets were open only for several hours before their day’s supplies ran out in the rush to stock up.

“I’m afraid a disaster is going to happen with all these refugees,” said Mr. al-Bizri, who has been sleeping in his office for days. “There’s no aid, not from other nations, not from Lebanon.”

The Sidon area has largely been spared Israeli bombardment in recent days, but a wave of bombings early in the Israeli offensive shattered the main roads into and out of the city. Sidon is about halfway between Beirut and the port of Tyre, the biggest city south of the Litani River. Tyre has borne the brunt of severe Israeli strikes.

The main coastal highway has been cut and bridges destroyed — as has the parallel, older Sidon-Beirut route — forcing cars to make their way up winding roads into the mountains.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland called on Israel to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian goods into northern Lebanon by road; into the ports of Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre for sea cargo; and into Beirut airport for air shipments. The airport has been put out of commission by Israeli strikes on its runways.

The United Nations estimates that more than 500,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon.

The flight appeared to be accelerating as Israel warned everyone south of the Litani River, 20 miles from the border, to flee north. The region has a population of more than 400,000, and by some estimates, well over half of them have streamed north.

Tyre has dwindled from about 175,000 people to only 5,000.

The first International Red Cross relief convoy to Tyre arrived Friday after a six-hour journey over damaged roads from Beirut, a spokesman said.

The Lebanese Health Ministry reported 362 deaths in Lebanon. Thirty-four Israelis have been killed, including 19 soldiers.

About 33,000 foreigners have fled Lebanon since Israel began its offensive.

In downtown Beirut, hundreds of Canadians waited at a seaside facility for their departure documents to be checked. Many rolled their luggage behind them, held the hands of their children and filed into the processing center. A few wept. Canadians make up Lebanon’s largest foreign community, estimated at 50,000, and Canadian officials expect to evacuate about 30,000 of them eventually.

In Cyprus, Cypriot Foreign Minister George Lillikas said the island will need financial assistance from European countries if it is to keep receiving the tens of thousands of people fleeing Lebanon.

“We had about 20,000 to 25,000 people until now, and we are expecting that number to triple,” Mr. Lillikas told AP Television News. “That is why we need assistance from Europe.”

About 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans who live in Lebanon have left. Major U.S. evacuation operations were expected to be over by the end of the weekend, American officials said on the condition of anonymity.

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