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