July 21, 2006

Israel warns Lebanese to flee, calls up reserves

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel warned Lebanese civilians to
leave border villages on Friday and called up thousands of
reserves in a possible prelude to a ground offensive that would
expand its 10-day-old campaign against Hizbollah guerrillas.

Israel has so far failed to stop Hizbollah cross-border
rocket attacks, despite relentless bombardment which has killed
343 people and destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure.

Three Hizbollah rockets crashed into the northern Israeli
city of Haifa, wounding 10 people. Other towns were also hit.

Israeli planes dropped leaflets over south Lebanon warning
civilians to leave border villages and flee for safety north of
the Litani river, about 20 km (13 miles) from the frontier.

An estimated 300,000 mostly Shi'ite Muslim Lebanese
normally reside south of the Litani. There was no word on how
many have already fled the bombing and fighting of the past few
days. Air raids have wrecked many roads and bridges in the

The Israeli army called up several reserve battalions,
which can each comprise up to 1,000 soldiers, a military source

"It's possible that in the coming days our ground
operations will increase," Brigadier-General Alon Friedman said

Elite Israeli troops have been launching small-scale raids
in Lebanon to try to stop Hizbollah rocket attacks. But Israel
has been wary of launching a full-scale invasion, only six
years after it ended a costly 22-year occupation of the south.

It first invaded Lebanon in 1978, pushing up to the Litani
to try to drive Palestinian guerrillas from the border.

Lebanon's defense minister said the army, which has not
fought so far despite losing a score of soldiers in Israeli air
strikes, said it would defend the country against invasion.

The United Nations and many of its members have called for
an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, but the United States says
this would not solve the conflict unless Hizbollah, which is
backed by Syria and Iran, is prevented from attacking Israel.


Fleeing daily Israeli bombardment and a gathering
humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, thousands of tired, frightened
foreigners flooded into Cyprus, sparking warnings by officials
that the small island may not be able to cope with the influx.

"They (the Israelis) are targeting civilians. They call
themselves civilized, but they are barbaric," said Habib Kheil,
a mathematics professor from Michigan who had fled to Cyprus.

Israel's campaign in Lebanon has forced up to half a
million people to flee their homes. Bombs have wrecked dozens
of roads and bridges, making it hard to reach distressed

"The siege on Lebanon is not letting humanitarian aid in,"
said Hisham Hassan, spokesman for the International Committee
of the Red Cross (ICRC). "The south is isolated."

Two ICRC trucks were on their way from Beirut to a hospital
in Tire, where staff began burying corpses temporarily in a
mass grave dug in an army barracks to clear space in the

Israel began its assault after Hizbollah captured two
soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid on July 12. It
has also waged a military campaign in Gaza since June 28 to
recover another soldier, seized by Palestinian militants.

Hizbollah has fired a total of more than 900 rockets at
northern Israel, killing 15 civilians.

Nineteen Israeli soldiers have also been killed in the
conflict, including four in firefights just inside Lebanon on
Thursday. Hizbollah said it lost two fighters in the clashes.

Israelis still overwhelmingly back the war, with 90 percent
wanting it to go on until Hizbollah is driven from southern
Lebanon, a poll in Maariv newspaper showed on Friday.

Israeli jets bombed Shi'ite districts in Beirut, the
eastern Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon around sunrise on
Friday and hit a previously bombed bridge on the
Beirut-Damascus highway.

At least eight people were killed, bringing the Lebanese
death toll to 343, based on revised Health Ministry figures.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, pushing for
a U.N.-backed ceasefire, held talks in Beirut. U.S. Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in the region next week.

In Gaza, Palestinian medics said Israeli shelling killed a
Hamas militant and three civilians on Friday, as tanks and
troops withdrew from a refugee camp after a three-day assault.

(Additional reporting by Beirut, Jerusalem, Nicosia and
Dubai bureaus)