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Mideast Fighting Escalates

More Airstrikes in Beirut, More Missiles in Israel, More Death

July 17, 2006|Megan K. Stack and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

BEIRUT — Israel and Hezbollah escalated their blood feud Sunday as dozens of Lebanese died during airstrikes across their nation and eight Israelis were killed when militants slammed rockets into the port city of Haifa.

As explosions shook the earth and families cowered in shelters, both sides vowed to deliver even fiercer blows in the days to come. And world leaders struggled to find a diplomatic path out of the bloodshed.

At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded in the coastal Lebanese city of Tyre, where Israel attacked a civil defense building used by rescue workers. At least eight more Lebanese died in a strike on a house in the south, including a number of people who also held Canadian citizenship. The Canadian government said eight of its citizens were among those killed in Lebanon.

Israeli warplanes continued to pound Lebanon this morning, striking the northern city of Tripoli and the port in Beirut. At least 13 people were killed in Tripoli, Lebanese television reported.

The volley of rockets that crashed down on Haifa a few hours after sunrise Sunday was by far the deadliest single blow to Israeli civilians since the conflict flared Wednesday. The two sides have been trading hits since Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers.

Israel has answered the abductions with round-the-clock airstrikes on Lebanon, killing more than 140 civilians and wounding hundreds more. Over the same time, 24 Israelis have been killed, half of them soldiers, in attacks by the militant Shiite Muslim fighters.

Although Israel's clash is with Hezbollah, the attacks on this seaside country appear to have done far greater damage to Lebanese civilians and infrastructure. Hezbollah has continued to shoot an unabated barrage of rockets into Israel, in turn frequently hitting civilians, even after Israeli missiles shattered the airport and highways, struck predominantly Christian neighborhoods and drove thousands of people from their homes.

Israel has attacked Hezbollah offices and the headquarters of the group's leader. But about 1,500 airstrikes have also targeted a lighthouse, grain silos, power plants, bridges, airports and a truck packed with children, targets with no apparent relationship to Hezbollah.

"Why are we killing each other? Why are we creating these victims?" asked 60-year-old Yemen Srour, a Lebanese woman whose home was crushed and family members wounded in Sunday morning attacks on Beirut's southern suburbs.

Crouched on a thin foam mattress at a makeshift refugee shelter in Beirut, Srour used the tails of her Islamic head scarf to dab the tears from her cheeks. "I don't think there is a point to this," she said.

Officials from Israel and Hezbollah kept up their fiery vows of vengeance and escalation.

The rocket barrage on Haifa was only the beginning, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. The Shiite Muslim cleric dared Israel to send ground troops back into southern Lebanon, from which they withdrew in 2000 after 18 years of occupation, and pledged to unleash more surprise attacks on the Jewish state.

"When Israel crosses all the red lines, we have to do the same," Nasrallah said. "We will continue. We still have a lot more, and we are only at the beginning."

Despite the relentless bombings, Israel has not disrupted Hezbollah's leadership or smashed the militants' ability to wage guerrilla war, Nasrallah said.

"The Zionist entity is ignorant of what we have on all levels," Nasrallah said. "We are proud that we are not penetrated by Israeli intelligence, and we have been building up our forces on all levels in secret, waiting for the day when Israel would penetrate Lebanon."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had tough words of his own, promising that the attack on Israel's third-largest city would trigger "far-reaching consequences."

"Our enemies are trying to disrupt life in Israel -- they will fail," he said. "The public is strong and united in this struggle."

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the Israeli offensive would continue to grow.

"We must continue with wide-reaching actions and great power while imposing continuous pressure without hesitating," he said after a Cabinet meeting. "At the end of this conflict, we must bring Hezbollah to a point where it would not be possible for the organization to return to the international border and the line of fire."

In Russia, leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations meeting in an annual summit Sunday pressed for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

They issued a statement calling for Islamic guerrillas to end attacks on Israel. In turn, they urged Israel to stop its military operations in Lebanon and to pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip, where they have been battling Hamas and other militant groups for more than two weeks after another Israeli soldier was captured and taken into Gaza.

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