U.N. post hit in Lebanon

    A U.N.-run observation post near the border took a direct hit Friday
    during fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants. Israel resumed
    airstrikes on Lebanon and prepared for a possible ground invasion,
    warning people in the south to flee.

    Also Friday, more rockets were fired at the port city of Haifa, the
    first time in nearly 24 hours that Israel’s third-largest city has been
    struck. Rescue officials initially said that 10 people were injured
    seriously but later lowered that figure to just three.

    Air raid sirens wailed shortly after 1:10 p.m., and the first of
    what appeared to be three rockets struck the city. Smoke rose from near
    the city center and near the main port. A second volley struck the city
    just after 2:45 p.m.

    There were no reports of fatalities.

    Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israeli towns
    from the Lebanese border since fighting began on July 12, forcing
    hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take cover in underground
    shelters. A July 16 barrage killed eight people in Haifa.

    Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Hezbollah rockets hit the U.N. post
    near Zarit, just inside Israel, but a U.N. officer said it was an
    artillery shell fired by the Israeli Defense Force. The facility was
    severely damaged, but nobody was injured as the Ghanian troops manning
    the post were inside bomb shelters at the time of the strike, the U.N.
    official said.

    Israeli warplanes also pounded Lebanon’s main road link to Syria
    with missiles and set passenger buses on fire, police said, adding that
    part of Lebanon’s longest bridge collapsed.

    Two Apache attack helicopters collided in northern Israel near the
    Lebanon border early Friday, killing one air force officer and injuring
    three others, two seriously, Israeli officials said. Al-Jazeera
    reported that four soldiers were killed in the crash, but did not give
    a source. The commander of Israel’s air force appointed an inquiry team
    to determine the cause.

    French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, meanwhile, said his
    country was dispatching urgent aid to Lebanon by air and sea and he
    called for safe passage.

    His comments came a day after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
    warned of a humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and called for an immediate
    cease-fire, even as he admitted “serious obstacles” stand in the way of
    even easing the violence.

    “We are setting up a humanitarian air and sea port,” Douste-Blazy
    told reporters during a visit to Beirut. “At the same time we demand
    the establishment of humanitarian corridors.”

    Israel appears to have decided that a large-scale incursion across
    the border was the only way to push Hezbollah back after 10 days of the
    heaviest bombardment of Lebanon in 24 years failed to do so. But
    mounting civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of
    thousands of Lebanese could limit the amount of time Israel has to
    achieve its goals, as international tolerance for the bloodshed and
    destruction runs out.

    Top Israeli officials met Thursday night to decide how big a force
    to send in, according to senior military officials. They said Israel
    won’t stop its offensive until Hezbollah is forced behind the Litani
    River, 20 miles north of the border — creating a new buffer zone in a
    region that saw 18 years of Israeli presence since 1982.

    Israel has stepped up its small forays over the border in recent
    days, seeking Hezbollah positions, rocket stores and bunkers. Each time
    it has faced tough resistance from the guerrillas.

    Airstrikes left three passenger buses in flames in the Bekaa Valley
    near the Syrian border, on the road linking Beirut and Damascus, but
    police said nobody was hurt. The buses had just dropped off foreign
    passengers in Syria.

    Israeli warplanes also fired four missiles that caused the collapse
    of part of a 1.6 mile-long bridge linking two steep mountain peaks,
    part of the Beirut-Damascus highway in central Lebanon. The bridge has
    been hit several times since the fighting began.

    Also Friday, heavy black smoke billowed as Israeli warplanes renewed
    attacks on the ancient city of Baalbek — a major Hezbollah stronghold.
    Warplanes also attacked Hezbollah strongholds in south Beirut and
    elsewhere overnight.

    The Arab satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera said one person had been
    killed in south Beirut and another wounded, but the report could not be
    immediately confirmed by security officials.

    The U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because
    of the sensitivity of the situation, said an artillery shell fired by
    the Israeli Defense Force “impacted a direct hit on the U.N. position
    overlooking Zarit.”

    An Israeli Defense Force spokesman said the position was hit by
    rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas at northern Israel. The differing
    accounts could not immediately be reconciled.

    In 1996, during an Israeli air and artillery offensive against
    Lebanon, artillery blasted a U.N. base at Qana in southern Lebanon,
    killing more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge with the

    The U.N. mission, which has nearly 2,000 military personnel and
    more than 300 civilians, is to patrol the border line, known as the
    Blue Line, drawn by the United Nations after Israel withdrew its troops
    from south Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.

    At least 330 people have been killed in Lebanon in the Israeli
    campaign, according to Lebanese security officials. Thirty-four
    Israelis also have been killed, including 19 soldiers.

    Hezbollah said two of its fighters had been killed in the
    latest fighting with Israeli troops, bringing to five the number of
    guerrillas killed since Israel launched a massive military campaign
    against Lebanon after the militant Shiite Muslim group captured two of
    its soldiers on July 12.

    Annan denounced Israel for “excessive use of force” and
    Hezbollah for holding “an entire nation hostage” with its rocket
    attacks and snatching of two Israeli soldiers last week.

    The United States — which has resisted calls for it to press
    its ally Israel to halt the fighting — was sending Secretary of State
    Condoleezza Rice to the region, arriving in Israel Tuesday or Wednesday
    after stopping over in Arab nations, Israeli officials said. They spoke
    on condition of anonymity because the schedule was not yet confirmed.

    The mission would be the first U.S. diplomatic effort on the
    ground since the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon began nine days ago.

    Ships lined up at Beirut’s port as a massive evacuation effort
    to pull out Americans and other foreigners desperate to flee the
    fighting picked up speed. U.S. officials said more than 8,000 of the
    roughly 25,000 Americans who live or work in Lebanon will be evacuated
    by the weekend.

    Lebanese, meanwhile, streamed north into the capital and other
    regions, crowding into schools, relatives’ homes or hotels. Taxi
    drivers in the south were charging up to $400 per person for rides to
    Beirut — more than 40 times the usual price. In remote villages of the
    south, cut off by strikes, residents made their way out over the
    mountains by foot.

    The price of food, medical supplies and gasoline rose by as
    much as 500 percent in parts of Lebanon on Thursday as Israel’s
    relentless bombardment destroyed roads, bridges and other supply
    routes. The World Food Program said estimates of basic food supplies
    ranged from one to three months.

    Neither side showed any sign of backing down.

    Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah shrugged off concerns of
    a stepped-up Israeli onslaught, vowing never to release two Israeli
    soldiers captured by his guerrillas. He said they would be freed only
    as part of a prisoner exchange brokered through indirect negotiations.

    He spoke in an interview with the Al-Jazeera news network taped
    Thursday to show he had survived a heavy airstrike in south Beirut that
    Israel said targeted a Hezbollah underground leadership bunker. The
    guerrillas said the strike only hit a mosque under construction and no
    one was hurt.

    The U.N. estimated that about a half-million people have been
    displaced in Lebanon, with 130,000 fleeing to Syria and about 45,000
    believed to be in need of assistance.

    In preparation for a more powerful punch deeper into Lebanon,
    an Israeli military radio station that broadcasts into the south issued
    what it called “a strict warning” that Israeli forces would “act
    immediately” to halt Hezbollah rocket fire.

    “It will act in word and deed inside the villages of the south
    against these aggressive terrorist acts. Therefore all residents of
    south Lebanon south of the Litani must leave their areas immediately
    for their own safety,” the message in Arabic on the Al-Mashriq station

    More than 300,000 people are believed to live south of the
    Litani — which twice has been the border line for Israeli buffer zones.
    In 1978, Israel invaded up to the Litani to drive back Palestinian
    guerrillas, withdrawing from most of the south months later.

    Israel invaded Lebanon again in a much bigger operation in June
    1982 when its forces seized parts of Beirut. It eventually carved out a
    buffer zone that stopped at the Litani. That zone was reduced gradually
    but the Israeli presence lasted for 18 years until 2000, when it
    withdrew its troops completely from the country.

    © 2006 The Associated Press