- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

BEIRUT — Lebanese civilians surged north in growing numbers yesterday under a hail of Israeli rockets that struck a crowded minibus and flattened buildings in towns and villages across the Hezbollah-dominated south.

Hezbollah responded with about 90 rockets, killing two persons and wounding five in Haifa as officials said more than half the residents of northern Israel have left. Ground fighting continued around the Lebanese town of Maroun al-Ras, occupied by Israel on Saturday, but Lebanese officials said the Israelis were not trying to advance.

Israeli mortars and rockets struck the coastal city Sidon for the first time, hitting a Hezbollah-affiliated mosque and cultural center and throwing into panic a city already swollen with tens of thousands of shelter-seekers from farther south.

The exodus continued toward Beirut — where embassies evacuated tens of thousands of foreign nationals by ferry, warship and helicopters — most of them to Cyprus, where officials appealed for other countries to help.

U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator Jan Egeland condemned the Israeli air strikes as “a violation of international law” after touring a neighborhood in southern Beirut that had been largely leveled by air strikes. He said about $100 million was needed immediately to provide relief to an estimated 600,000 displaced Lebanese.

“It’s terrible. I see a lot of children wounded, homeless, suffering,” said Mr. Egeland, who visited a Hezbollah-dominated slum that was once home to several thousand people. “This is a war where civilians pay a disproportionate price in Lebanon and northern Israel. I hadn’t believed it would be block by block leveled to the ground.”

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert complained that the world’s press was unfairly criticizing Israel, which began its attack on Hezbollah targets across Lebanon after two of its soldiers were kidnapped on July 12.

“The massive, brutal and murderous viciousness of Hezbollah is unfortunately not represented in its full intensity on television screens outside of Israel,” he said. “A twisted image is presented, where the victim is presented as an aggressor.”

Israeli air strikes yesterday killed people in several villages in southern Lebanon and in Hezbollah-controlled areas of the central Bekaa Valley, bringing the Lebanese government’s count of fatalities to 380, one-third of those younger than 12, said Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.

One bomb hit a minibus participating in the heaviest and most frenzied flow yet of families desperate to leave the south, killing three and wounding 16 others, Dr. Hassan Nasreddine of the Red Cross told the Associated Press. Three bombs crashed into the southern Beirut suburb visited by Mr. Egeland hours after he left.

Layal Nejim, 23, a Lebanese magazine photographer covering the destruction in Tyre, became the first journalist to die in the conflict. An Italian U.N. peacekeeper was wounded.

On the Israeli side, two persons were killed when a rocket smashed into a house in Haifa, the largest Israeli city within range of the Hezbollah missiles used to date. At least 13 Israelis were wounded as towns and villages emptied across the north. Thirty-seven have died so far.

The Israeli army said it had seized two Hezbollah guerrillas during fighting in the village of Maroun al-Ras in southern Lebanon, Agence France-Presse reported.

Mr. Egeland said the United Nations would appeal for $100 million for relief for those displaced by the bombardment and called on Israel to guarantee safe corridors for aid and supplies.

Food, fuel and medicine were said to be running short in Sidon, where an estimated 35,000 refugees from the south have swollen a normal population of 100,000.

Some supplies have arrived in Beirut aboard vessels coming to remove foreign evacuees, and Israel has offered to allow further goods to be landed. But it was not clear how they could safely be delivered to the hard-hit areas in the south.

The U.S. Embassy has coordinated the evacuation of about 10,000 Americans in the past six days. An estimated 25,000 U.S. citizens are in Lebanon, and many of those staying here are dual nationals with Lebanese families, consular officials think.

The British government announced yesterday that it was winding down operations after rescuing about 10,000 citizens from Lebanon. French, Canadian and Scandinavian nationals continue to leave, while the first Philippine expatriates arrived home yesterday.

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