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Toll Climbs In Mideast As Fighting Rages On
As Leaders Weigh Plans, Westerners Flee Beirut

By Jonathan Finer and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A01

JERUSALEM, July 17 -- Israel traded heavy fire with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon on Monday, its air and artillery attacks killing at least 38 Lebanese, many of them civilians, and Hezbollah rockets made their deepest strikes yet into the Jewish state.

Blaring air raid sirens sent Israelis dashing for concrete bomb shelters throughout the day, and thousands of people across Lebanon abandoned their homes to flee the violence. Several Western nations, including the United States, launched plans to evacuate their citizens from the battered country.

With the violence came a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring about a cease-fire and quell the crisis. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called for deployment of multinational peacekeeping forces to southern Lebanon. U.S. officials called such a move premature, but did not reject it; Israeli officials did.

Hours after that proposal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that Israel would not halt its offensive on Lebanon until four conditions were met: the release of two soldiers abducted last week, the deployment of the Lebanese army along a buffer zone at the border, the withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters from that zone and the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of militias such as Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group.

"There are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality and say: no more. This is such a moment," Olmert told Israel's parliament in a defiant, emotional speech, his first formal address since the new violence began. "We will search every compound, target every terrorist who assists in attacking the citizens of Israel and destroy every terrorist infrastructure, everywhere."

He continued: "When missiles are launched at our residents and cities, our answer will be war with all the strength, determination, valor, sacrifice and dedication which characterize this nation."

The cross-border attacks, the largest conflagration along that front since Israel invaded in 1982, began last week when Hezbollah attacked Israeli soldiers in the country's north, abducting two of them.

The clash followed a similar assault by Hamas fighters who crossed Israel's boundary with the Gaza Strip last month. They killed two soldiers and captured another, prompting Israeli air and ground forces to launch an offensive there. On both fronts Israel has said it intends to continue fighting until its borders are secured.

The Israeli government said Monday it was extending indefinitely a two-day state of emergency in the north. In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops continued to operate around the town of Beit Hanoun, clashing occasionally with Palestinian fighters. Palestinian doctors in Beit Hanoun said three people were killed in their homes by Israeli snipers and 14 others wounded. Israeli military sources said they had no information on such attacks. An Israeli military spokeswoman said that seven rockets were fired from the area Monday, injuring two Israeli civilians.

In Lebanon, Israeli raids again struck the Beirut-Damascus highway, along with gas stations, factories and a small fishing port. Smoke from fires arced over the Beirut sky.

News agencies quoted the military and police as saying that more than 210 people had been killed since the attacks began Wednesday. The Health Ministry put the number at 182 dead and 525 wounded, almost all of them civilians, but said that count included only those identified by hospital officials.

Twelve Israeli civilians have died in the recent wave of Hezbollah attacks, with more than 300 others receiving medical treatment, most for shock. Twelve soldiers have also been killed.

In one of the worst losses of civilian life in Lebanon, an Israeli attack targeted two cars crossing a bridge in Rmeileh, north of the southern port city of Sidon. Government officials said 10 civilians were killed, including two children.

Nine Lebanese soldiers were killed Monday in an attack on the fishing port of Abdeh in northern Lebanon, the Health Ministry said. Israeli military officials said the only army installation targeted Monday was a radar post used by Hezbollah to attack an Israeli ship last week.

[Early Tuesday, attacks by Israeli warplanes killed at least 11 people, including seven civilians from one family in a southern Lebanese border village called Aitaroun, the Reuters news agency reported. Four others died in strikes elsewhere in the south.]

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli military to provide details about a bombing Saturday that killed 16 people in a convoy of civilians fleeing a Lebanese village near Israel's border.

Meanwhile, in a sign of a potentially prolonged conflict, the United States said it was sending a cruise ship to begin evacuating Tuesday some of the 25,000 Americans in Lebanon. The Pentagon said the Orient Queen, which can carry 750 people, will take the evacuees to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The U.S. Navy will provide an escort through waters blockaded by Israeli warships.

The French Embassy began evacuating its citizens, along with other Europeans, on Monday. About 1,200 people gathered at a French school in eastern Beirut to board buses that carried them to the Beirut port, where they were to depart for Cyprus and then catch flights home. At the school, people waited hours on a humid, overcast day, their suitcases and strollers piled along the school's courtyard.

"This isn't going to end," said Prince Michilidis, a Lebanese Greek who was returning to Greece with his three sisters. "It's a shame. Just that."

He pointed beyond the school's walls, where bomb blasts occasionally echoed. "I'm lucky to leave, but there are thousands who are not as lucky, and they don't have food, they don't have water and they don't have money," he said. "It's chaos."

Many people shared the gloom as they waited. Hagop Manuokian wrapped a pink towel around his neck to wipe his brow. He and his three children had come for a summer vacation in Lebanon, but now were returning home to the Netherlands.

"At least three days from now, I'm going to be sleeping like a lamb on my pillow, but everyone else here is going to live with it," he said. "Injuries don't heal quickly. It takes time, and they leave scars."

The fighting has displaced more than 60,000 people, the government said, a figure thought to be a conservative estimate. At Mohammed Shamil School in Beirut, some of those displaced threw mats, blankets and foam mattresses on classroom floors.

Food was short; a few boxes of cheese, beans and tuna were stacked outside, hardly enough to feed the 300 people who had arrived since Wednesday.

In the northern Israeli city of Haifa, where eight civilians were killed in rocket attacks a day earlier, three more rockets struck late Monday afternoon, one smashing the facade of a three-story apartment building and wounding at least six people. The attack prompted Israel to shut the city's port, the country's largest.

Another barrage struck the town of Atlit, 35 miles south of the border with Lebanon, in the longest-range strike to date. No one was hurt.

Israel's defense forces said that an airstrike in Lebanon destroyed a truck carrying Iranian-made missiles, one of which has a range of nearly 100 miles, military sources said. Hezbollah has previously said its munitions could reach Tel Aviv, 75 miles south of the Lebanese border.

Earlier Monday morning, small teams of Israeli ground soldiers briefly crossed into Lebanon to attack Hezbollah targets, a military spokesman said, calling it "a very pinpointed operation, not an incursion."

Also Monday, in the West Bank town of Nablus, Palestinian gunmen threw an explosive at Israeli soldiers conducting a raid on what military sources described as a militant stronghold, killing one soldier. Six soldiers were wounded in the skirmish, one seriously, the military said.

Correspondents John Ward Anderson in Gaza City and Scott Wilson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company