WORLD / Middle East

Israel steps up assault on Beirut suburbs
Updated: 2006-07-16 08:50

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Warplanes bombed Beirut's southern suburbs again early Sunday, witnesses reported, after a day in which Israel tightened a noose around this reeling nation with the heaviest air strikes yet in the four-day-old conflict.

With the sun setting over the Mediterranean Sea an Israeli air strike hits the center of the southern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon Saturday, July 15, 2006 as Israeli war planes repeatedly blasted the residential area which is a Hezbollah stronghold throughout the day. Israeli warplanes repeatedly blasted Beirut's southern suburbs on Saturday, causing a series of huge blasts, Hezbollah's Al Manar television reported.[AP]

The Israeli air force on Saturday hit strongholds of the Hezbollah Shiite Muslim guerrilla group, bombed central Beirut for the first time, and pounded seaports and a key bridge. Then, in Sunday's early morning darkness, a dozen thunderous explosions shook southern Beirut, where Hezbollah is headquartered and much of the intensifying air assault has been targeted since cross-border hostilities erupted Wednesday.

Hezbollah's TV aired footage showing two long columns of smoke rising from buildings into the night sky. Lights were out across large sections of Beirut because the Israelis bombed power stations and the fuel depots feeding them.

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 both Hezbollah and Iran denied.

Hezbollah, 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. The fighting broke out when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid.

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, 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 would meet a repeated U.N. and U.S. demand. But any effort by Saniora's Sunni Muslim-led government to use force against the Shiite 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 Saniora's statements, Israel's Vice Premier 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," Peres told 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.

There has been no sign in Lebanon of Iranian Revolutionary Guards for 15 years. But Iran is one of Hezbollah's principal backers along with Syria, providing weapons, money and political support. Many believe Iran and Syria are fueling the battle to show their strength in the region.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again condemned Israel's Lebanon offensive Saturday, telling Tehran's state television, "The Zionist regime behaves like Hitler."

Despite global concerns, there were few signs of diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting.

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 one sign the West expects a drawn-out battle, the U.S. Embassy said it was looking into ways to get Americans in Lebanon to Cyprus. France said it had already decided to send a ferry from Cyprus to evacuate thousands of its nationals. The British were sending two warships, including the carrier Illustrious, toward Lebanon, in apparent preparation for evacuations.

In all, 33 people were killed in Lebanon on Saturday, police said. That 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.

Four days into the Israeli offensive, Lebanese themselves remained divided over Hezbollah's operation: Some angry and terrified, others proud.

"No one has stood up to Israel the way the resistance (Hezbollah) has," said a 33-year-old housewife, Laila Remeiti, one of about 130 people who have taken refuge at a Beirut government school.
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