Brutal fighting in south as Israel kills at least 14 civilians

TYRE (Agencies) — Israel shut down road traffic in south Lebanon on Tuesday, declaring a no-drive zone below the Litani River and threatened to blast any moving vehicle as a target. Only pedestrians ventured into the streets of Tyre and country roads and highways were deserted throughout the region.

In the 28th day of the war, ground fighting intensified across the south Lebanon front, and at least 14 Lebanese civilians died in air strikes. Rescuers pulled 28 additional corpses from the wreckage of attacks the day before, raising the death toll to 77 Lebanese killed Monday, the highest since the war began. Israel reported three soldiers killed Tuesday but no civilians. Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting moved slowly, although both Israel and the United States issued positive, if lukewarm, assessments of the Lebanese government’s plan to dispatch 15,000 soldiers into south Lebanon after a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

“It looks interesting and we will examine it closely,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the proposal was significant.

But President George W. Bush warned against leaving a vacuum into which Hizbollah and its sponsors are able to move more weapons. 

The council put off for at least one day voting on a US-French ceasefire proposal to allow three leading Arab officials to present arguments that the resolution was heavily tilted in favour of Israel.

Both the US and French envoys to the UN indicated there might be room for limited compromise.

“We’re still working on things,” US Ambassador John Bolton told reporters yesterday.

“Obviously we want to hear from the Arab League … and then we’ll decide where to go from there… We’ve said from the get-go that we want this to be in the context of a sustainable long-term solution. That’s still what we’re trying to work out.” French UN Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere promised to take Lebanon’s stance into account. But he did not say whether France was prepared to add such language to the text.

Travel in Lebanon’s south had been severely limited since early in the conflict because roads had been cut by Israeli air strikes, many civilians were killed on the roads trying to flee the fighting and rescue and aid workers also were in danger.

But residents had been able to move in vehicles with relative safety inside towns and villages to continue daily routines. Now they are feeling trapped in their homes as well as under constant threat of air attacks. The psychological strain was sure to begin showing quickly.

Some of the fiercest ground fighting Tuesday continued around the village of Bint Jbeil, a Hizbollah stronghold that Israel has tried to capture for weeks. The three Israeli soldiers were killed there, the military said, claiming 35 Hizbollah fighters died in the fighting.

Hizbollah would not confirm any deaths.

The Israeli army said at least 160 rockets hit northern Israel, most of them in and around the towns of Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona, Maalot, Safed. No Israeli civilians died Tuesday.

A day after his Cabinet conditionally approved dispatching the troops to the south, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora praised Hizbollah’s resistance, but said it was time for Lebanon to “impose its full control, authority and presence” nationwide — as directed in previous UN resolutions that also called for the government to disarm Hizbollah.

“There will be no authority, no one in command, no weapons other than those of the Lebanese state,” he said on Al Arabiya television.

The total number of Lebanese civilian deaths rose by 42 Tuesday as rescue workers pulled 14 more bodies from the wreckage to two buildings in south Beirut that were hit by Israeli missiles the night before. The toll in that attack now stands at 30.

One of the most tragic stories was that of Ali Rmeity. He was badly wounded and winced with pain in the Mount Lebanon hospital near Beirut. Three of his children were dead and his only surviving son was in intensive care. He hadn’t been told because doctors said they feared the 45-year-old could not stand the shock.

Rmeity was at home with his wife and four children shortly after nightfall Monday when Israeli missiles slammed into their apartment building in the predominantly Shiite southern Beirut suburb of Chiah.

Half of the 30 people killed in the strike were from Rmeity’s family.

“I had been feeling tired, so I went into the bedroom and laid down on the bed. Five minutes later the bombs fell and I found myself crying for help under the rubble,” Rmeity said Tuesday. “My wife who was on the balcony was thrown in the air. They found her somewhere, I don’t know where.” His wife, Hoda, was being treated in an adjacent room for severe lung injuries and several fractures. Their 9-year-old son, Hussein, was in intensive care with head trauma and brain contusion.

The Rmeity’s three other children — Mohammed, 22, Fatima, 19, and 16-year-old Malak — were killed. So were Ali Rmeity’s parents, his three brothers and two sisters. His brother’s family who lived in the same building also died.

All but one of the Lebanese civilians killed Tuesday fell in air raids that Israel said targeted rocket positions near the Mediterranean port of Sidon. Four strikes on Ghaziyeh killed 13 people, one of them walking in a funeral procession to bury the dead from the day before.

In two days, at least 28 people were killed in the town, five kilometres south of Sidon, police and civil defence officials said.

The 14th person was killed Tuesday in an air strike in Rzoum, near Tyre and about 35 kilometres south of Sidon.

Since the fighting began, at least 684 people have died on the Lebanese side of the conflict. The Israeli toll stood at 100 killed — 36 civilians and 64 soldiers.

The United Nations suspended attempts to send relief to southern Lebanon because of heavy shelling in the area, said Christian Berthiaume of the World Food Program in Geneva, Switzerland, though aid shipments were arriving elsewhere in the country.

“The Israeli forces were warning today, saying that there shouldn’t be any vehicles in the southern part of Lebanon,” said “They had exempted humanitarian convoys (but) we decided not to go because there has been heavy shelling the last 24 hours.” The WFP and other UN relief agencies said they were frustrated over the difficulty of moving aid into Lebanon, and said what they had brought in so far was insufficient.

“There are two words that sum up where the humanitarian situation is, and these are ‘not enough,”’ said Wivina Belmonte of the UN Children’s Fund. “Fuel supplies are not enough, hospitals are on life support, supplies of humanitarian goods trying to get into the country are not enough.”

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