`No limits' on Israeli army

Prime minister frees forces to go far into Lebanon after Hezbollah

Olmert says army has free rein

August 08, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON AND MEGAN K. STACK | TRACY WILKINSON AND MEGAN K. STACK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In one of the deadliest days of nearly a month of warfare, Israeli bombardment killed at least 61 people yesterday in strikes on south Beirut, the eastern Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon.

With diplomatic overtures for a cease-fire stalled, Israel vowed to expand its offensive. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would place "no limits" on the army in its efforts to rid south Lebanon of Hezbollah militia fighters.

In south Lebanon, three Israeli soldiers from a tank crew were killed and seven injured during pitched battles with Hezbollah guerrillas.

The day's heaviest toll was exacted when Israeli warplanes took aim after sunset at the southern Beirut neighborhood of Shiyah, flattening a crowded, six-story apartment building and sending debris flying for blocks.

By midnight, at least 20 people had been found dead, Lebanese television reported, and the numbers continued to climb as rescue workers rooted in the rubble in search of survivors or bodies.

The attack late yesterday came as a growing chorus of Israeli military figures acknowledged they have been unable to stop Hezbollah and demanded a freer hand to move deeper into Lebanon.

Lebanon's weak and beleaguered government said yesterday that it would deploy a 15,000-strong army south of the Litani River if Israel withdrew from Lebanon, an important signal from Beirut that it will attempt to exert control over territory long ago ceded to Hezbollah. The government ordered army reservists called up in anticipation of the deployment.

Israel's attack on the Shiyah neighborhood was especially terrifying because it was an area considered safe; refugees from bombings elsewhere had sought it out. It is not part of the Hezbollah-dominated suburban band that rings Beirut's southern edge.

"Now it's possible to bomb anywhere," said Hassan Tarraf, a 25-year-old chef who lives near the targeted building. "We were considering this a safe area."

At the site, rescue workers clambered up mountains of debris in search of survivors. Soldiers fanned out through the neighborhood, ordering cars to switch off their lights lest they tempt another attack.

Over loudspeakers, a man begged bystanders to get out of the streets, pointing out that Israeli warplanes were still overhead. The blue and red lights of ambulances pulsed in the night.

"Please stop talking," he cried. "There are so many under the debris. We need to be able to hear them."

Zeineb Chaito, 40, lay in a Beirut hospital bed last night, her face badly bruised, her leg so violently broken that the bone had burst through the skin. Like many others who ended up beneath the rubble, Chaito had fled her village in the south and taken refuge in Shiyah. Shops had remained open throughout the war, and the streets bustled with people.

"I was listening to the news and I felt myself fall down and I lost consciousness," she said. "I was talking to somebody in my family and then the bomb hit."

Chaito was calling for her sisters, who had been with her just before the blast. A distant family member explained gently that many people still lay trapped under the rubble. Chaito pressed, asking for her sisters. "Really, I don't know," he said slowly. But it wasn't true. The two women had been crushed by the debris, he told visitors quietly; their chances for survival were slim.

"Hezbollah is an excuse to hit us," said Fatima Ismael, a 21-year-old accounting student who sat stunned in the emergency room, bloodied and coated with the dust of crumbled walls.

"Do I have a Katyusha [missile] here in my pocket? Do I have a Katyusha in my heart?" she demanded, clutching at her body. "Do I have a Katyusha sitting there with my sister?"

Details remained sketchy about airstrikes in the Lebanese border village of Houla, where Israel bombed a group of farmhouses where at least 150 people had taken shelter, according to people still living there. Nearly 60 people emerged alive from the rubble; the rest were unaccounted for.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora initially said the blast killed 40 people, but later revised the toll to one dead.

Elsewhere in southern Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley, an additional 40 people were reported killed in air raids.

A day after Hezbollah rockets killed 15 Israelis, a deepening divide between the country's political and military leadership was in evidence.

Olmert, touring Israeli military command headquarters in the besieged north, said he will give the army free rein to press its offensive, regardless of diplomatic developments.

"We have to stop the rockets," Olmert told reservist officers. "We cannot have a million residents living in shelters. On this matter, there will be no limitations on the army. Israel cannot allow itself to let others think that we will not punch them back in full force."

Olmert's comments might have been intended in part to stifle mounting criticism from senior commanders that they have felt restrained in the ground war.

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