BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP -Israeli warplanes struck a minibus carrying people fleeing the fighting Sunday in southern Lebanon, killing three people, Lebanese security officials said, and Israel said it would accept a NATO-led international force to keep the peace along the border.
Hezbollah rockets killed two civilians in northern Israel, and a member of the U.N. observer team in south Lebanon was seriously wounded by guerrilla fire.
The top U.N. humanitarian official, touring Beirut, said billions of dollars will be needed to repair damage from 12 days of warfare.
Israeli troops continued to hold a Lebanese border village that they battled their way into the day before, but did not appear to be advancing, Lebanese security officials said. Its warplanes and artillery, meanwhile, were battering areas across the south.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told the Cabinet that the current offensive is not an invasion of Lebanon, but rather a series of limited raids into the area.
Peretz also said that Israel would accept a temporary international force, preferably headed by NATO, deployed along the Lebanese border to keep Hezbollah guerrillas away from Israel, according to officials in Peretz’s office.
Israel also hit the southern port of Sidon for the first time in its campaign, destroying a religious complex linked to Hezbollah and wounding four people. More than 35,000 people streaming north from the heart of the war zone had swamped the city, which is teetering under the weight of refugees.
Israel also bombed a textile factory in the border town of al-Manara, killing one person and wounding two, Mayor Ali Rahal told The Associated Press.
The stricken minibus was carrying 16 people fleeing the village of Tairi, working their way through the mountains for the southern port city of Tyre. A missile hit the bus near the village of Yaatar, killing three and wounding the rest, security officials said. The wounded were taken to hospitals in Tyre.
On Saturday, the Israeli military told residents of Taire and 12 other nearby villages to evacuate by 4 p.m.
At least four other people were killed by strikes in the south, Lebanese television said, but the deaths were not confirmed by security officials. About 45 people were wounded in Israeli air raids that targeted villages and towns around Tyre, security and hospital officials said.
The three deaths in the minibus brought to at least 375 the official death toll provided by Lebanese authorities. Israel’s death toll stands at 36, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 19 soldiers killed in fighting.
A U.N. observer was seriously wounded by Hezbollah gunfire during fighting with Israeli troops in south Lebanon, said U.N. spokesman Milos Strugar. The Italian chiefs of staff office identified the wounded U.N. official as Italian Capt. Roberto Punzo, saying he was flown by helicopter to an civilian hospital in Haifa.
He was the second member of the U.N. monitoring team injured in 12 days of fighting. Several U.N. positions on the border have taken hits from Israeli shells, and Israel said earlier this week that a U.N. post on its side was hit by a Hezbollah missile — although the observer team said it was a stray Israeli shell.
Israeli warplanes and helicopters bombed Nabi Sheet, near the eastern Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek, wounding five people, witnesses said. In Baalbek, strikes leveled an agricultural compound belonging to Hezbollah. Raids also targeted a factory producing prefabricated houses near the main highway linking Beirut to the Syrian capital of Damascus, witnesses said.
Two civilians died in early morning air raids on border villages, witnesses said. A 15-year-old boy was killed at Meis al-Jabal, and a man was killed at Blida.
Hezbollah rockets badly damaged a house and slammed into a major road in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, killing two people, and at least 13 others were wounded across northern Israel.
Peretz said the 12-day-old offensive in Lebanon would continue as Israel tries to push Hezbollah guerrillas away from the border.
“The army’s ground operation in Lebanon is focused on limited entrances, and we are not talking about an invasion of Lebanon. We are beginning to see the army’s successes opposite Hezbollah,” he told the Cabinet, according to a participant in the meeting.
Peretz also met with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of a series of diplomatic meetings aimed at ending the fighting. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was also scheduled to meet with Israeli officials, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was headed to the region as well.
“The goal is to create a situation in which we have as broad a space for diplomatic movement as possible,” Peretz said after meeting Steinmeier. “The goals we set for ourselves will be achieved. We certainly see a combination of a military operation that is fulfilling its role plus broad international activity to complete the process.”
In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel had “pushed the button of its own destruction” by attacking Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Ahmadinejad didn’t elaborate, but suggested Islamic nations and others could somehow isolate Israel and its main backers led by the United States. On Saturday, the chairman of Iran’s armed forced joint chiefs, Maj. Gen. Sayyed Hassan Firuzabadi, said Iran would never join the current Middle East fighting.
U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, meanwhile, inspected the destruction wrought by Israeli air raids on south Beirut as he began a relief mission to Lebanon.
Making his way around piles of rubble, he stressed the need for a halt to the hostilities.
“If it continues like this, there will be more and more civilian casualties,” he told reporters.
Egeland also planned to travel to Israel for further coordination on opening aid corridors. The number of displaced people has grown to 600,000, according to the World Health Organization.
Egeland said Saturday it would take more than $100 million to help the displaced. He said he would make an appeal “urging, begging” the international community for aid.
Evacuees in Sidon were stretching supplies of fuel, food and some medicines that already were tight for its own population of 100,000 and nearly impossible to replenish.
“There are no supplies reaching us, not from other nations, nor from the Lebanese government,” said Mayor Abdul-Rahman al-Bizri, whose city was so packed that Palestinian refugees were taking in Lebanese refugees.
Sidon was only one face of the mounting humanitarian crisis across Lebanon amid an Israeli blockade and bombardment that has made roads unusable or too dangerous to distribute supplies to the south.
The Israeli military has announced that humanitarian aid could enter through Beirut’s port and determined a coastal to Tripoli as a land corridor for aid. But it did not define a safe passage route to the south — where the bombardment is heaviest.
Aid supplies arrived Friday and Saturday on ships carrying Europeans fleeing the country. The exodus of foreigners continues, with tens of thousands — including 7,500 Americans — taken out by sea the past week.