Lebanese flee Israeli bombardment 400,000 rush to Beirut on fourth day of assault

April 15, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAMARIYE, Lebanon -- Israeli shells gave cry to the air as they whistled to the ground around this small village, announcing in every plume of smoke Israel's continued bombardment of South Lebanon yesterday.

In a darkened cellar, 10 men and women glanced about nervously at the each clap of destruction. They had balked at joining the human stampede of 400,000 civilians caused by Israel's warnings to evacuate dozens of towns and the nearby major city of Tyre.

A few dozen yards from this cellar, Islamic Hezbollah gunners fired rockets yesterday morning at Israeli helicopters hovering overhead, according to the local United Nations officer. The rockets missed, and Israel pummeled the village through the day.

Tyre, a Biblical city of 130,000, was emptied by mid-morning yesterday of most of its residents. Hezbollah Sheik Naher Hamoud sat in his office, beside a bookcase of Koran teachings on which a rifle and camouflage jacket rested. He dismissed the Israeli strategy.

"The Israeli bombing will only push the people of Lebanon to be more supportive of the resistance," he said. "Until now, not a single Hezbollah man has been killed. Only civilians."

Civilians in impossibly packed cars jammed the roads leading to Beirut early yesterday to beat Israel's latest evacuation deadline. On the roofs of some cars were potato sacks stuffed with clothes and food; other vehicles had room only for children.

Seven miles south of the Tyre, a U.N. camp manned by Fijian peacekeepers welcomed stragglers from Samariye, a tiny rural village less than a mile from the Israeli guns in the "security zone" occupied by Israeli forces.

"We don't have a car. No money. We can't leave," said Ismail Asker, 40, a perfume vendor. "We came to the U.N. for help."

"The poor people are the ones who can't afford to run away," said Major David Marteni, the commander of the camp. "We've opened our gates to them to try to make them safe and comfortable."

Thirty Samariye villagers waited in the barracks yesterday. They scanned the sky and the deceptively pastoral countryside. The villagers jumped when another bomb exploded.

At the scene of the blast, Mahmoud Kishen peered, frightened, from a citrus grove. His house had just been hit by Israeli warplanes for the second time in two days. It was an Israeli mistake, he insisted: Hezbollah had quarters nearby, but he was not part of the group.

"I am just a farmer. I saved all my life to build this house so I could get married. Now, in a few seconds, it is gone," said Mr. Kishen, 30. His wife and five children were staying with relatives in Tyre.

A while later, he picked sullenly through the wreckage of his house, examining the rocket casing from the U.S.-made missile.

Israeli officials yesterday went to great lengths to insist that their bombardment was not aimed at innocent civilians.

"There is no blind shelling of the villages or villagers. We are very careful," said Prime Minister Shimon Peres. He declared that villages from which Hezbollah operated would be ordered evacuated and houses used by the guerrillas destroyed.

The Israeli effort seemed intended to minimize the public relations damage when a civilian-filled ambulance was hit by an Israeli missile Saturday. Graphic film broadcast internationally showed three dying children and three dead mothers, but Israel's unsupported claim was that the ambulance contained a Hezbollah guerrilla.

"Where is the Hezbollah in these children?" asked Dr. Jawad Najem, at a small hospital south of Tyre, as he pulled open the doors of the morgue where five of the victims lay yesterday. The bodies of the tiny children were entwined on one drawer shelf. No relatives remained uninjured to bury them.

Israeli gunships near Nabatiyeh fired on a second ambulance yesterday, injuring four paramedics, according to reports here. Missiles also struck a Hezbollah radio station near Baalbek, which resumed transmitting shortly afterward, and an apartment complex in South Lebanon that Israel said was Hezbollah headquarters.

The attack on the Lebanese power station in southeast Beirut was in response to damage to the electricity grid of Israel's northern town of Kiryat Shmona caused by Katyusha shelling, Israeli military officials said.

The airplane attacks over Beirut drew anti-aircraft fire from Lebanese and Syrian military positions, their rapid bark a reminder of the 15 years of civil war that had ravaged Beirut. No planes were reported hit yesterday.

The Israeli bombardment comes after a breakdown of the 1993 understanding in which Hezbollah and Israel agreed to avoid civilian targets. Both sides blame the other for the breakdown, which began Tuesday when Hezbollah retaliated for the killing of a Lebanese teen-ager by shelling from northern Israel.

The United States, abandoning a policy of appearing even-handed, has sided squarely with Israel, even repeating the misleading accusation that Hezbollah attacks have been unprovoked by Israeli actions.

Lebanese officials said yesterday that they fear the United States will again use its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block any condemnation of the Israeli bombardment when the issue is presented today.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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