July 21, 2006

Lebanese flee from south

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thousands of Lebanese civilians fled
north on Friday after Israel warned them to leave border
villages and called up 3,000 army reserves in a possible
prelude to a major ground offensive against Hizbollah

Amid mounting world alarm at the crisis, U.S. Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice plans to leave for the Middle East on
Sunday in what diplomats called a bid to reduce the fighting.

Israel has so far failed to stop Hizbollah cross-border
rocket attacks, despite a 10-day bombardment which has killed
345 people in Lebanon, forced half a million to leave their
homes and destroyed many of the country's vital installations.

Hizbollah rockets crashed into the northern Israeli city of
Haifa, wounding 19 people. Other towns were also hit. Rocket
attacks have killed 15 civilians in Israel, which has also lost
19 soldiers in the conflict.

Israel's main ally, the United States, has rebuffed
Lebanon's appeals for an immediate U.N.-backed ceasefire,
saying this would not last unless Hizbollah, which is backed by
Syria and Iran, is prevented from attacking the Jewish state.

Families with possessions packed into cars and pickup
trucks clogged roads to the north after Israeli planes dropped
leaflets warning residents of south Lebanon to flee for safety
beyond the Litani river, about 20 km (13 miles) from the

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 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

An Israeli military source said the army had told 3,000
reserves to report for duty. The call-up came a day after
Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke of a possible land

The Israeli army could have three to four divisions on the
border with Lebanon by the end of the weekend, the YNET news
Web site reported. The army would not confirm or deny the

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, would defend the country against invasion.


U.S. helicopters plucked frightened Americans from Beirut,
adding to a swelling tide of foreign evacuees to Cyprus and
Turkey. At a beach, people carrying suitcases and babies queued
for a landing craft to take them out to U.S. warships.

"My parents are staying. They think it will last three to
six weeks but I think it might get worse when we leave," said
George Abi-Habib, 25, one of many who voiced similar worries.

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.

Israelis still overwhelmingly back the military operations,
a new opinion poll in Maariv newspaper showed.

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 345, about 90 percent of them civilians.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, pushing for
a ceasefire and a humanitarian aid corridor, held talks in

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was
involved in brokering a 2004 prisoner swap between Israel and
Hizbollah, also plans a trip to the Middle East next week.

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

(Additional reporting by Beirut, Jerusalem, Nicosia, Dubai,
Washington and Berlin bureaux)