Sunday, July 16, 2006

BEIRUT — Israel intensified its air assault on Lebanon yesterday, bombing central Beirut for the first time and pounding seaports and a key bridge as it tightened a noose around this reeling nation.

Trying to defuse the crisis, Lebanon’s prime minister indicated he might send his army to take control of southern Lebanon from Hezbollah — a move that might risk civil war.

In a more ominous sign that the struggle could spread, Israel accused Iran of helping fire a missile that damaged an Israeli warship, a charge Iran denied.

Hezbollah guerrillas, meanwhile, fired waves of rockets ever deeper into Israel, and Israeli officials warned that Tel Aviv, 70 miles inside Israel, could be hit.

The death toll in the four-day-old conflict rose above 100 in Lebanon and stood at 15 in Israel.

Early todaywaves of warplanes thundering through the darkness bombed Beirut’s southern suburbs for several hours.

On Israel’s second front, against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, Israeli aircraft yesterday struck the Economy Ministry of the Hamas-led Palestinian government and three other targets, killing two persons, Palestinian and Israeli officials reported.

Israeli tanks approached the town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza this morning, residents and Palestinian security forces said. The town lies across the border from an Israeli town, Sderot, frequently hit by Hamas guerrilla rockets.

Despite worldwide alarm, there was little indication either Western or Arab nations could muster a quick diplomatic solution. The United States and France prepared to evacuate their citizens from Beirut, and Britain dispatched an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean in apparent preparation for evacuations.

Choking back tears, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora went on television to plead with the United Nations to broker a cease-fire for his “disaster-stricken nation.”

The Western-backed prime minister, criticizing both Israel and Hezbollah, also pledged to reassert government authority over all Lebanese territory, suggesting his government might deploy the Lebanese army in the south, which Hezbollah effectively controls.

That deployment would meet a repeated U.N. and U.S. demand, but any effort by Mr. Saniora’s Sunni Muslim-led government to use force against the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas could trigger another bloody civil war in Lebanon. Many fear the 70,000-strong army itself might break up along sectarian lines, as it did during the 1975-90 civil war.

Reacting to Mr. Saniora’s statements, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Lebanon must prove it was serious by deploying troops on the border.

“We have to see what they do and not what they say,” Mr. Peres said on Israel’s Channel 2 TV.

Iran, meanwhile, denied any role in the fighting, disputing Israeli claims that 100 Iranian soldiers had helped Hezbollah attack an Israeli warship late Friday.

Iran is one of Hezbollah’s principal backers along with Syria, providing weapons, money and political support.

President Bush, on a trip to Russia, said it was up to Hezbollah “to lay down its arms and to stop attacking,” but Russian President Vladimir Putin urged a balanced approach by Israel and said it appeared the nation was pursuing wider goals than the return of abducted soldiers.

Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, adopted a resolution calling for U.N. Security Council intervention, but moderates led by Saudi Arabia, bickering with Syria and other backers of Hezbollah, denounced the Lebanese guerrilla group’s actions in provoking the latest conflict.

In all, 33 persons were killed in Lebanon yesterday, police said. That total raised the Lebanese death toll in the four-day Israeli offensive to 106, mostly civilians. On the Israeli side, at least 15 have been killed, four civilians and 11 soldiers.

Israeli warplanes demolished the last bridge on the main Beirut-Damascus highway — over the Litani River, six miles from the Syrian border — trying to complete their seal on Lebanon.

Fleeing refugees, including women and children, were cut down on a road adjacent to the Lebanese-Israeli border in an air strike as they left the village of Marwaheen. The bodies of several children were sprawled on the ground. Police said 15 were killed in the afternoon attack, and an Associated Press photographer counted 12 bodies in the two cars.

At least three civilians were killed when another Israeli air strike hit a bridge near the Syrian border, cutting the last land link on the main road to Syria and its capital, Damascus.

In the afternoon, Israeli forces hit central Beirut, striking the port and a lighthouse on a posh seafront boulevard, a few hundred yards from the campus of the American University of Beirut. The seaport is adjacent to downtown Beirut, a district rebuilt at a cost of billions of dollars after the 1975-1990 civil war.

The brunt of the onslaught focused more and more on Hezbollah’s top leadership in south Beirut and the eastern city of Baalbek. Ambulances raced to a Baalbek residential neighborhood where black smoke rose from air strikes.

Israel also targeted the headquarters compound of Hezbollah’s leadership in a crowded Shi’ite neighborhood of south Beirut for the second straight day. Hezbollah in turn struck out repeatedly at Israel.

Its rockets hit Tiberias three times yesterday, the first attack on the city — 22 miles from Lebanon — since the 1973 Mideast war. At least two houses were directly hit, but only a few light injuries were reported, medics said.

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