TYRE, Lebanon (AFP) – Israeli warplanes have blitzed southern and eastern Lebanon after troops in tanks and armoured cars punched across the border and seized a strategic village, intensifying the war on Hezbollah despite mounting concern over the plight of civilians.
Shiite guerrillas responded with a new hail of rocket fire on Israel’s third city of Haifa that killed two people, while the UN reported fighting around the village of Marun Al-Ras taken over by Israeli forces on Saturday.
As the bloody conflict entered its 12th day Sunday, top diplomats from France, Germany and Britain were heading to the region ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who rejects ceasefire calls as a “false promise.”
In a wave of pre-dawn raids, fighter-bombers for the first time struck directly inside the main southern city of Sidon, where tens of thousands of Lebanese have sought refuge from the relentless Israeli offensive.
A three-storey building housing a Hezbollah religious centre was hit.
Israel also targeted Hezbollah’s power base in Beirut’s Shiite-dominated southern suburbs and struck factories, roads and bridges in air strikes in the eastern Baalbek region, killing one person.
Streams of people, many waving white flags, are making a desperate trek from southern Lebanon after Israel ordered them to leave their homes, raising fears of a largescale ground invasion.
More than 350 people have been killed in Israel’s massive blitz against Lebanon which was launched after the capture of two soldiers by guerrillas from the Shiite Muslim group in a deadly border attack on July 12.
A total of 37 Israelis have died in the fighting.
As international efforts to end the conflict gathered pace, there was growing criticism of Israel’s offensive, which has left Lebanon virtually cut off from the world, made hundreds of thousands refugees in their own country and destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure.
“The whole thing has to stop. It’s no natural disaster but a man-made crisis. This is a senseless war. It should never have started. It should never have been carried out like it is now,” UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland said.
He was in Beirut Sunday to launch an appeal for millions of dollars in aid to help the half million civilians displaced by what the United Nations says has created a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation.
But the White House said Saturday it was keeping to its policy on backing Israel’s right to self-defence, as Rice prepared Sunday to leave for the region where she is expected to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
“We are keeping to our adopted position. Israel has the right to defend herself,” a White House spokesman told AFP.
The United States is also expediting an arms shipment of precision bombs to Israel from an arms deal struck last year.
Packed into tanks, bulldozers and armoured cars, Israeli troops cut across the border near the town of Avivim Saturday in what the army said was another “pinpoint operation” against Shiite Muslim guerrillas.
General Beni Gantz said Israeli air and ground forces “have more or less completed taking over the village of Marun Al-Ras,” strategically located 911 meters (3,000 feet) above sea level.
A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon said Israeli troops and tanks were inside the hotspot village and that there was fighting in the area, where five Israeli soldiers and several Hezbollah militiamen have been killed in recent days.
Israeli forces have been mounting regular incursions into Lebanon in addition to its massive air bombardment, calling up thousands of reservists and massing troops along its northern border.
Justice Minister Haim Ramon said the aim of the offensive was to keep Hezbollah — which controls southern Lebanon in the absence of the regular Lebanese army — at least 20 kilometres (13 miles) from the frontier.
“For Israel, there are no longer civilians in southern Lebanon,” Ramon warned. “We want to uproot Hezbollah but in a prudent manner to prevent losses.”
He said the current offensive would not match the magnitude of the 1982 invasion, which left about 20,000 people dead, traumatising Lebanon and plunging Israel also into a lethal quagmire.
On Saturday, Israel pounded television transmission stations and mobile telephone masts in raids across the country that left five dead, including a television station employee.
“The Israelis are looking to destroy sound and image in Lebanon — the last weapons this country has — after bombarding infrastructure,” Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said.
Britain’s junior foreign office minister Kim Howells made London’s most unequivocal criticism yet of Israel’s offensive, in stark contrast to the line taken by Washington and his own prime minister.
“These are not surgical strikes. It’s very difficult to understand the kind of military tactics that are being used,” Howells said during a visit to Beirut.
“If they are chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation,” he said. “I very much hope that the Americans understand what’s happening to Lebanon — the destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people.”
Israel said it opened a 50-mile-long and five-mile-wide (80-kilometre by eight-kilometre) safe passage to Beirut for ships and aircraft, a humanitarian corridor to allow aid to the Lebanese.
Israel’s air and sea blockade put Lebanon’s only international airport out of action, and the bombing of houses, roads, bridges, factories, warehouses and trucks created scenes reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war.
But US President George W. Bush maintained his backing for Israel’s campaign as Rice prepared travel to the region in search of what she described as a long-term solution.
“I believe sovereign nations have the right to defend their people from terrorist attack, and to take the necessary action to prevent those attacks,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Underlining the repercussions of the conflict on the whole region, he said Syria was “a primary sponsor” of Hezbollah and has given the militia Iranian-made weapons.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mukdad said Damascus is ready to open a “dialogue” with the United States to resolve the crisis.
Meanwhile thousands of people around the world on Saturday bashed drums, brandished placards and chanted slogans to demand an end to Israel’s offensive.
Foreign governments also continued to evacuate their citizens, mainly to the neighbouring island of Cyprus which is battling to find temporary accommodation and flights for the estimated 70,000 evacuees at the height of its holiday season.
Israel is also pressing on with its offensive on the Gaza Strip, where at least 106 people have been killed in two weeks. It aims to retrieve a soldier snatched by Palestinian militants and to stop rocket fire.