BEIRUT, Lebanon – A U.N.-run observation post near the border took a direct hit Friday during fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants. Israel resumed airstrikes on Lebanon and prepared for a possible ground invasion, warning people in the south to flee.
Also Friday, at least five rockets struck the port Israeli city of Haifa, wounding 10 people.
Air raid sirens wailed shortly after 1:10 p.m., and the first of what appeared to be three rockets struck the city. Smoke rose from near the city center and near the main port.
Rescue officials said that 10 people were injured. There were no reports of fatalities.
Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israeli towns from the Lebanese border since fighting began on July 12, forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take cover in underground shelters. A July 16 barrage killed eight people in Haifa.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Hezbollah rockets hit the U.N. post near Zarit, just inside Israel, but a U.N. officer said it was an artillery shell fired by the Israeli Defense Force. The facility was severely damaged, but nobody was injured as the Ghanian troops manning the post were inside bomb shelters at the time of the strike, the U.N. official said.
Israeli warplanes also pounded Lebanon’s main road link to
Syria with missiles and set passenger buses on fire, police said, adding that part of Lebanon’s longest bridge collapsed.
Two Apache attack helicopters collided in northern Israel near the Lebanon border early Friday, killing one air force officer and injuring three others, two seriously, Israeli officials said. Al-Jazeera reported that four soldiers were killed in the crash, but did not give a source. The commander of Israel’s air force appointed an inquiry team to determine the cause.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, meanwhile, said his country was dispatching urgent aid to Lebanon by air and sea and he called for safe passage.
His comments came a day after U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and called for an immediate cease-fire, even as he admitted “serious obstacles” stand in the way of even easing the violence.
“We are setting up a humanitarian air and sea port,” Douste-Blazy told reporters during a visit to Beirut. “At the same time we demand the establishment of humanitarian corridors.”
Israel appears to have decided that a large-scale incursion across the border was the only way to push Hezbollah back after 10 days of the heaviest bombardment of Lebanon in 24 years failed to do so. But mounting civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese could limit the amount of time Israel has to achieve its goals, as international tolerance for the bloodshed and destruction runs out.
Top Israeli officials met Thursday night to decide how big a force to send in, according to senior military officials. They said Israel won’t stop its offensive until Hezbollah is forced behind the Litani River, 20 miles north of the border — creating a new buffer zone in a region that saw 18 years of Israeli presence since 1982.
Israel has stepped up its small forays over the border in recent days, seeking Hezbollah positions, rocket stores and bunkers. Each time it has faced tough resistance from the guerrillas.
Airstrikes left three passenger buses in flames in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, on the road linking Beirut and Damascus, but police said nobody was hurt. The buses had just dropped off foreign passengers in Syria.
Israeli warplanes also fired four missiles that caused the collapse of part of a 1.6 mile-long bridge linking two steep mountain peaks, part of the Beirut-Damascus highway in central Lebanon. The bridge has been hit several times since the fighting began.
Also Friday, heavy black smoke billowed as Israeli warplanes renewed attacks on the ancient city of Baalbek — a major Hezbollah stronghold. Warplanes also attacked Hezbollah strongholds in south Beirut and elsewhere overnight.
The Arab satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera said one person had been killed in south Beirut and another wounded, but the report could not be immediately confirmed by security officials.
The U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said an artillery shell fired by the Israeli Defense Force “impacted a direct hit on the U.N. position overlooking Zarit.”
An Israeli Defense Force spokesman said the position was hit by rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas at northern Israel. The differing accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
In 1996, during an Israeli air and artillery offensive against Lebanon, artillery blasted a U.N. base at Qana in southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge with the peacekeepers.
The U.N. mission, which has nearly 2,000 military personnel and more than 300 civilians, is to patrol the border line, known as the Blue Line, drawn by the
United Nations after Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.
At least 330 people have been killed in Lebanon in the Israeli campaign, according to Lebanese security officials. Thirty-four Israelis also have been killed, including 19 soldiers.
Hezbollah said two of its fighters had been killed in the latest fighting with Israeli troops, bringing to five the number of guerrillas killed since Israel launched a massive military campaign against Lebanon after the militant Shiite Muslim group captured two of its soldiers on July 12.
Annan denounced Israel for “excessive use of force” and Hezbollah for holding “an entire nation hostage” with its rocket attacks and snatching of two Israeli soldiers last week.
The United States — which has resisted calls for it to press its ally Israel to halt the fighting — was sending Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice to the region, arriving in Israel Tuesday or Wednesday after stopping over in Arab nations, Israeli officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the schedule was not yet confirmed.
The mission would be the first U.S. diplomatic effort on the ground since the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon began nine days ago.
Ships lined up at Beirut’s port as a massive evacuation effort to pull out Americans and other foreigners desperate to flee the fighting picked up speed. U.S. officials said more than 8,000 of the roughly 25,000 Americans who live or work in Lebanon will be evacuated by the weekend.
Lebanese, meanwhile, streamed north into the capital and other regions, crowding into schools, relatives’ homes or hotels. Taxi drivers in the south were charging up to $400 per person for rides to Beirut — more than 40 times the usual price. In remote villages of the south, cut off by strikes, residents made their way out over the mountains by foot.
The price of food, medical supplies and gasoline rose by as much as 500 percent in parts of Lebanon on Thursday as Israel’s relentless bombardment destroyed roads, bridges and other supply routes. The World Food Program said estimates of basic food supplies ranged from one to three months.
Neither side showed any sign of backing down.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah shrugged off concerns of a stepped-up Israeli onslaught, vowing never to release two Israeli soldiers captured by his guerrillas. He said they would be freed only as part of a prisoner exchange brokered through indirect negotiations.
He spoke in an interview with the Al-Jazeera news network taped Thursday to show he had survived a heavy airstrike in south Beirut that Israel said targeted a Hezbollah underground leadership bunker. The guerrillas said the strike only hit a mosque under construction and no one was hurt.
The U.N. estimated that about a half-million people have been displaced in Lebanon, with 130,000 fleeing to Syria and about 45,000 believed to be in need of assistance.
In preparation for a more powerful punch deeper into Lebanon, an Israeli military radio station that broadcasts into the south issued what it called “a strict warning” that Israeli forces would “act immediately” to halt Hezbollah rocket fire.
“It will act in word and deed inside the villages of the south against these aggressive terrorist acts. Therefore all residents of south Lebanon south of the Litani must leave their areas immediately for their own safety,” the message in Arabic on the Al-Mashriq station said.
More than 300,000 people are believed to live south of the Litani — which twice has been the border line for Israeli buffer zones. In 1978, Israel invaded up to the Litani to drive back Palestinian guerrillas, withdrawing from most of the south months later.
Israel invaded Lebanon again in a much bigger operation in June 1982 when its forces seized parts of Beirut. It eventually carved out a buffer zone that stopped at the Litani. That zone was reduced gradually but the Israeli presence lasted for 18 years until 2000, when it withdrew its troops completely from the country.