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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Aid Trickles Into Tyre Amid Blasts

Israeli planes destroy a building that was home to a cleric as the first U.N. convoy, carrying a supply of flour, reaches the Lebanese city.

July 27, 2006|Megan K. Stack and Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writers

TYRE, Lebanon — Just hours after the first shipment of humanitarian aid finally reached this besieged port city Wednesday, Israeli warplanes unleashed a series of bombings that smashed an apartment complex to dust in the city center.

The massive bombings in Tyre struck the home of a Shiite cleric affiliated with Hezbollah, neighbors said. The cleric wasn't home when the missiles struck, but at least 12 people were badly wounded in the blasts, including young children.

Thirteen days into the siege and air assault by Israel, the convoy of wheezing trucks carrying wheat flour and medical supplies rolled into the ghostly streets of downtown Tyre, a six-hour drive south along the bomb-cratered road from Beirut.

Although the delivery marked a symbolic victory, it will hardly begin to address the massive humanitarian crisis gripping southern Lebanon. The relief program falls far short of what is needed, and is still heavily restricted by the Israeli military, United Nations officials said.

"There are still 20,000 children trapped behind the lines of hostility, traumatized and unable to move on," said Jamie McGoldrick, a team leader from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We still can't reach them."

The Israel Defense Forces rules, which require aid agencies and foreign governments to submit a request to the Israeli army at least 12 hours in advance, hinder the U.N.'s ability to respond to the increasingly desperate conditions, McGoldrick said.

The food that reached Tyre won't last long. There was only enough flour for about three days, said Khalid Mansour, a U.N. spokesman who rode down to Tyre wearing a bulletproof vest. That leaves nothing for the thousands of hungry people trapped farther south.

In meetings Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli officials had pledged to open up a humanitarian corridor. But the current arrangement falls short, said Arafat Jamal, country director for the U.N. refugee agency.

"It is still on a convoy-byconvoy basis," he said. "The ideal would be a much firmer guarantee for access."

A convoy of U.N. trucks carrying mattresses, kitchen sets and other supplies has been stuck at the Syrian border for several days, after Israel objected to the Syrian license plates on the trucks, said an aid official who declined to be identified.

The towns and villages of the south have been cut off by smashed bridges, crushed roads and air attacks on vehicles. Drinking water has run out in some places. Desperate refugees forced to flee on foot say that hunger has gripped some of the more remote villages.

"People here can't wait for political outcomes, they can't wait for negotiations to go on for weeks, and they might take weeks," said Mansour, the U.N. spokesman in Tyre.

A wrinkled woman named Amni Mohammed lingered behind the trucks, bunching her fingers close to her lips to indicate hunger. She had fled to Tyre from her hometown of Mansouri with her children, she said.

"We're hungry and we're not getting any help," she said urgently, tugging at the arm of any foreigner she could find. "Can't you speak to somebody?"

As the sun glinted low over the Mediterranean, a quick series of explosions thundered through the old stone alleyways and pebbly beaches of Tyre.

Israeli warplanes had unleashed bombs on a multistory apartment building in the densely populated downtown. The missiles flattened the structure, and gouged out a pit of fire and rubble where the apartments once rose.

At the apartment gate, a songbird blinked dazedly in its burnt cage, which had tumbled haphazardly on the ground. Its yellow feathers were singed black. An unconscious young man was scooped up from the debris; his shirtless body flopped lifelessly as his rescuers raced toward the street to find an ambulance.

"Water! Water!" the firefighters screamed, yanking at their hoses to disentangle them in an alleyway. "We need water!" Acrid black smoke rose from the rubble.

Young men who appeared to be Hezbollah faithful showed up almost immediately. One stood before the television cameras as the fires still blazed, urging calm and control: "Thank God there are no dead," he said. "What we're concerned about is that people don't get scared, that they stay steadfast and strong."

When a reporter asked what Israel had been targeting, the man hesitated.

"A five-story building," he hedged. At his elbow, a second man hissed a command: "Don't say anything."

"May God destroy Israel," somebody cried out.

Dark clouds hung in the pale pink sky. The evening call to prayer echoed in the rundown street.

"We evacuated from Nabatiyeh to Tyre, and now this happens?" fretted Ali Sharoul, 50, a butcher who watched firemen struggle against the blaze. "Where are we supposed to go after this?"

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