Mideast fighting intensifies

Israel hits central Beirut for first time

Hezbollah rockets reach once-unscathed Tiberias

July 16, 2006|By LAURA KING AND MEGAN K. STACK | LAURA KING AND MEGAN K. STACK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Israeli airstrikes hit central Beirut for the first time yesterday, and cross-border rocket barrages struck deeper inside Israel, reaching the previously unscathed city of Tiberias as the confrontation between Hezbollah guerrillas and the Jewish state spiraled toward all-out war.

Fueling fears that the conflict could spill over into regional strife, Israeli officials asserted that Iranian personnel had helped fire a missile Friday that crippled an Israeli naval vessel off the coast of Lebanon and killed at least one sailor. Israel and the United States have accused Iran, Hezbollah's chief patron, of bearing ultimate responsibility for the Shiite Muslim group's actions.

With diplomacy yielding little fruit, Israeli forces and Hezbollah traded heavy blows for a fourth straight day. Israeli warplanes pounded targets across Lebanon, killing dozens of people and further demolishing roads and infrastructure along with Hezbollah offices.

According to the Associated Press, waves of Israeli warplanes thundered through the darkness to bomb Beirut's southern suburbs for hours early today.

Israeli jets could be heard over the city, much of it darkened because airstrikes have knocked out power stations and the fuel depots feeding them.

Civilians on both sides bore the brunt of the violence. An Israeli airstrike killed at least 15 people fleeing the fighting in south Lebanon, 12 of them children. Lebanese officials also said that more than 100 people had been killed in four days of airstrikes. Four Israeli civilians have also died.

Two rocket barrages hit the Israeli resort city of Tiberias, injuring eight people and sending frightened sunbathers fleeing the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The strike, the first rocket attack in Tiberias since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, heightened Israel's anxiety that many of its urban centers, including the densely populated outskirts of Tel Aviv, lie within the range of Hezbollah's weapons.

At least 90 rockets fell yesterday across northern Israel, pushing the total since the fighting broke out to more than 400, the Israeli military said. Tens of thousands of northern Israel's 750,000 people are spending much of their time in bomb shelters or in their homes, venturing out only to quickly stock up on supplies. Many others sought refuge in the south.

Even some Orthodox Jews, whose religious precepts forbid them to drive on the Sabbath, climbed behind the wheel yesterday to escape the rocket fire.

The fighting was triggered by a Hezbollah cross-border raid Wednesday that left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two in Hezbollah's captivity.

Israel declared the raid an act of war by Lebanon, whose leaders say they are powerless to rein in Hezbollah, which is also a partner in the government. In by far the strongest statement to emerge from a largely silent Lebanese administration during the past four days, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora implored the international community to save his country from ruin.

"We call for an immediate cease-fire backed by the United Nations," an impassioned Siniora told a news conference in Beirut yesterday evening. In a counterweight to the enraged declaration of war issued by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah the previous night, Siniora spoke with despair of civilian suffering. "Destruction is raining down around the clock," he said.

The Arab League said after an emergency meeting in Cairo yesterday that the peace process had failed in the Middle East and called on the U.N. Security Council to intervene.

Israel has asserted that Iran was a force behind Hezbollah's attacks. Yesterday Israeli officials made their most specific allegation yet of Iranian involvement, saying an Iranian military or technical team helped Hezbollah fire an Iranian-made radar-guided missile that struck an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast.

"We have particular knowledge that they assisted them," said a senior military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The official said that more than 100 Iranian troops, including members of the elite Republican Guard, are in Lebanon and assisting Hezbollah.

In a statement issued by its Beirut embassy, Iran denied that it had any troops in Lebanon or that it had anything to do with the missile strike. State television in Iran said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemned the Israeli offensive. "The Zionist regime behaves like Hitler," it quoted him as saying.

The missile strike on the Israeli ship left one sailor dead and three others missing.

The vessel, a Saar-5 class missile ship that had been helping enforce an Israeli blockade of the Lebanese coast in effect since Thursday, was returned under escort to port in Israel yesterday.

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