In Lebanon

As Convoy Smolders on Hill, Villagers Warn Drivers of Raid

Smoke rises from a truck set ablaze in an Israeli airstrike near the village of Zahleh. The truck carrying rice and sugar was bound for Beirut. The strike blocked the road to people who were fleeing to Syria.
Smoke rises from a truck set ablaze in an Israeli airstrike near the village of Zahleh. The truck carrying rice and sugar was bound for Beirut. The strike blocked the road to people who were fleeing to Syria. (By Samer Husseini -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

ZAHLEH, Lebanon, July 18 -- On a twisting mountain road in eastern Lebanon, little remained of the truck that had tried to pass through earlier: The fuel tank was enveloped in greasy, orange flames. The undercarriage had melted into something that resembled crusty wrought iron. And the cargo -- white sacks of sugar and rice bound for Beirut -- burned angrily despite high-pressure hoses trained on the wreckage by volunteer firemen.

The blazing truck was surrounded by the wreckage of two other 10-wheelers, a pair of sedans and a four-wheel-drive taxi from Jordan. All were destroyed by Israeli warplanes that swooped down at midday Tuesday on a road that has become a lifeline for Lebanese fleeing to Syria for safety, and for truckers trying to bring needed supplies into besieged Lebanese towns.

Smoke from the burning fuel and foodstuff rose in a black funnel, partly obscuring a statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus that overlooks this village renowned for its Christian faith. The haze also darkened a nearby sign reading "Friendship Village" and pointing to a hilltop center where in better times people gather to celebrate fellowship. It drifted down the mountainside toward the Bekaa Valley, a Shiite Muslim stronghold where Hezbollah, Israel's declared enemy, maintains bases and supply depots.

But here on this crest where the wreckage still smoked several hours later, there was no sign of any military target and no indication the trucks were carrying anything but food bound for Beirut. The pair of smashed cars looked like ordinary family four-doors. The taxi, a white vehicle with company insignia splashed on the doors, was one of the many that normally transport people among Beirut, Damascus and Amman every day.

An Israeli military spokesman said aircraft hit four trucks on a highway in Lebanon that were carrying weapons for Hezbollah and had originated in Beirut. Told the trucks appeared to be carrying food, the spokesman said, "We attack only terror targets that relate to Hezbollah and their terror infrastructure."

The vehicles' drivers and passengers were taken to a nearby facility for medical care; there was no word on how many were killed or injured. Nearby residents, meanwhile, scattered dirt on the roadway to prevent passing cars from skidding on the spilled diesel fuel. Down the slope, Zahleh villagers leaned out of their shops to shout warnings at passing cars. "They are attacking!" they cried, before turning back to their business. "The road is closed!"

Since the latest round of conflict erupted last Wednesday with a Hezbollah raid into northern Israel, civilians have constituted the overwhelming majority of the casualties, according to authorities in Beirut. More than 230 Lebanese have been killed, they say, and all but about 25 were civilians. Only half a dozen belonged to Hezbollah, according to government and Hezbollah officials.

Civilian areas also have borne the brunt of destruction to Lebanon's infrastructure. About 40 bridges and as many roads have been rendered useless by airstrikes and ship-to-shore shelling, including damage to the main Damascus-to-Beirut highway that makes the roundabout trip through Zahleh necessary. The Israeli military has attacked runways and fuel depots at Beirut's international airport, forcing its closure. The main ports, at Beirut and Tripoli, have been attacked as well, along with fuel tanks for plants that generate electricity.

Thousands of Lebanese have poured out of the country into Syria, jamming hotels in Damascus, and on to Amman, the Jordanian capital. Hundreds of cars backed up Tuesday at the border crossing. Families packed into cars waited in the heat for clearance from customs and immigration officials. One man drove a sedan with no doors. Another played with his iPod in a shiny, black Audi, keeping the motor running for air conditioning.

"Maybe Hezbollah has a problem [with Israel]," said Ahmed Joumaa, who was headed for calm in Syria in his small pickup truck. "But I don't have a problem. So why am I suffering? You must do something to help my country."

Joumaa, his brother and his sister were stuffed into the truck's cabin. Several children and other relatives, including an elderly woman in traditional black robes, sat in the back, exposed to the sun. The woman, seeing a foreigner beside the vehicle, called out, "You want to come with me? Come on up here. I'll take you where you want to go."

On the radio, meanwhile, came the news that five members of a family were killed when an Israeli warplane hit a home in Aitaroun, in craggy tobacco fields near the Israeli border. Some witness accounts put the toll at nine.

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