Lebanon's 3rd-Largest City Warned of Airstrikes

A man inspects a living room left charred and littered with bullet casings after a raid by Israeli commandos early Saturday in Tyre.
A man inspects a living room left charred and littered with bullet casings after a raid by Israeli commandos early Saturday in Tyre. (By Kevin Frayer -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 6, 2006

TYRE, Lebanon, Aug. 5 -- Israel warned residents of Sidon, Lebanon's third-largest city, to leave Saturday ahead of imminent airstrikes on what it called Hezbollah targets, and Israeli naval commandos and Hezbollah fighters waged a fierce early morning battle in Tyre that stretched until dawn. At least seven Lebanese were killed, including a soldier, hospital officials said.

The conflict elsewhere assumed the pattern of past days, even as the United States and France reached an agreement on the text of a U.N. resolution that calls for an end to the fighting. Israeli aircraft struck southern Beirut, and fighting persisted across a rugged band along the border. Hezbollah fired 160 rockets into northern Israel on Saturday, killing three people, according to police officials. Two Israeli soldiers were also killed in clashes.

The Israeli military said it dropped leaflets on Sidon that were aimed at warning all residents to leave. [Early Sunday, Israeli airstrikes on the southern Lebanese village of Ansar, about 10 miles southeast of Sidon, killed at least five civilians in heavy bombardment, the Reuters news agency reported, citing police and local residents.]

"There is Hezbollah activity inside, and we are going to be targeting it more intensely than we have before," an Israeli military spokesman said. "That's why we're warning residents there in advance to leave so they don't get hit accidentally."

Sidon, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city with a population of 100,000, has never been a stronghold of Hezbollah, which draws its strength from Lebanon's Shiite Muslim population in south Beirut, southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Sidon's population has been swollen by an influx of refugees from southern Lebanon, which has borne the brunt of the conflict. So far in the 25-day war, as many as 1 million Lebanese have fled their homes, a quarter of the Mediterranean country's population.

There was no visible exodus from the city Saturday. Business went on as usual, and most shops were open, although as in the rest of the country, fuel was in short supply and most gas stations were closed.

In the raid in Tyre, Israeli naval commandos attacked the second floor of a five-story apartment building about a half-mile from the coast searching for what Israeli military officials said were leaders of the Hezbollah detachment that fired long-range rockets at the western city of Hadera on Friday. The strike was one of the deepest yet in Israel.

"This place became a front last night," said Salem Huweidi, 32, who lives in a building nearby.

The operation began around 3 a.m., unleashing a din of explosions, cannon blasts and small-arms fire. Electricity was cut in parts of the city, and at least two roads were bombed in fighting that did not subside until around dawn.

A fire had gutted one apartment, which bore hallmarks of a nondescript residence -- CDs of Madonna and Celine Dion, family pictures and charred eggs -- along with a profusion of weapons. Clips and unspent ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles rested along the walls. A charred rifle lay near a window, not far from two rocket-propelled grenades. A picture of Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, sat next to a computer. Mattresses and pillows were spread on the floor.

Residents of the apartment building said the commandos were wearing Lebanese army uniforms.

"I thought they were Lebanese army doing a patrol in the area," said Alaa Qassim, a 19-year-old neighbor.

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