Sunday, July 16, 2006
Israel Continues Bombardment of Lebanon; Civilians Killed, Infrastructure Destroyed
Sunday 16 July 2006 1:25 AM GMT
Israeli offensive does not look like ending soon
Israel continued to pound Beirut's southern suburb on Sunday, the fifth successive day of an offensive on Lebanon.
The air strikes, which killed 35 civilians on Saturday, including 15 children, were meant to punish the Lebanese government for failing to disarm the resistance group Hezbollah.
Israel says this has allowed Hezbollah to menace Israel's northern border, where measures just short of a state of emergency have been ordered.
Israel has said it aims not just to force Hezbollah to free the soldiers, whom the Shia group wants to trade for prisoners in Israel, but to destroy its ability to fire rockets into Israel.
The bombing of Lebanese roads, bridges, ports and airports, as well as Hezbollah targets, is Israel's most destructive onslaught since an invasion to expel Palestinian forces in 1982.
The attacks started after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border operation on Wednesday.
Air strikes in the early hours of Sunday damaged a flyover linking the southern suburb with the eastern part of Beirut, Hezbollah's al-Manar television reported, and the loud blasts were heard throughout the capital. Israeli aircraft have already flattened Hezbollah's nine-storey headquarters.
The campaign in Lebanon coincided with an offensive Israel started in the Gaza Strip on June 28 to try to retrieve another captured soldier and halt Palestinian rocket fire.
Israeli forces clashed with fighters in Gaza on Sunday as tanks moved back into the north of the Gaza Strip. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers, backed by helicopter gunships, moved into farmland near Beit Hanoun, an area often used by fighters for launching rockets.
Small groups of fighters opened fire at the Israeli forces, but there was no report of casualties.
Appeals for aid
Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, repeated his demands for an immediate UN-backed ceasefire on Saturday. He denounced Israel for turning his country into a "disaster zone" and appealed for foreign aid.
His speech came hours after Israel bombarded ports in Christian areas for the first time and a helicopter missile hit a lighthouse on Beirut's seafront.
Israel has said the way out will be for Lebanon to implement a UN resolution demanding that Hezbollah be disarmed. The Beirut government, led by an anti-Syrian coalition, lacks the unity and firepower to disarm Hezbollah, the only Lebanese faction to keep its guns after the 1975-90 civil war.
George Bush, the US president, who has declined to urge Israel to curb its military operations, said Syria should tell Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, to stop cross-border attacks.
Meanwhile, an Israeli missile incinerated a van in southern Lebanon, killing 20 people, among them 15 children, in the deadliest single attack of the campaign.
Police said the van was carrying two families fleeing the village of Marwaheen after Israeli loudspeaker warnings to leave their homes.
At least 104 people, all but four of them civilians, have been killed in the five-day assault, which has choked Lebanon's economy and forced tourists and foreigners to flee.
Four Israelis, including a five-year-old child, have been killed and 300 wounded by about 700 rockets fired since Wednesday at more than 20 towns.
The Israeli offensive has forced hundreds of families to flee their homes in south Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburb, and they are sheltering in schools across the capital. Human rights activists said the makeshift shelters lacked basic services.
"They don't have enough blankets and medical supplies," Ghassan Makarem, one activist, told Reuters on Sunday. "The situation is disgusting."
The Israeli government gave authorities the power to shut schools, factories and public institutions in the north in a move that falls just short of a full state of emergency.
Israel has deployed Patriot missile batteries in the northern city of Haifa to intercept rockets.
It also warned the Lebanese army on Sunday against shooting at its aircraft and said it would not hesitate to strike "at any party operating against it".
Israel says it aims not just to force Hezbollah to free the soldiers, whom the Shia group wants to trade for prisoners in Israel, but to destroy its ability to fire rockets into Israel.
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Lebanon blames US for UN silence
Sunday 16 July 2006 1:51 AM GMT
La Sabliere confirmed no agreement had been reached
Lebanon has accused the United States of blocking a Security Council statement calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, and said the impotence of the UN's most powerful body sent wrong signals to small countries.
Nouhad Mahmoud, the Lebanese special envoy, said: "It's unacceptable because people are still under shelling, bombardment and destruction is going on ... and people are dying."
Qatar, the only Arab nation on the council, received widespread support during closed council consultations for a press statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, restraint in the use of force, and the protection of civilians caught in the conflict, council diplomats said.
But Cesar Mayoral, Argentina's UN ambassador, said the United States objected to any statement and Britain opposed calling for a ceasefire.
The US and Britain want to wait for the outcome of this weekend's Group of Eight meeting in Russia, an Arab League foreign ministers meeting, and a mission sent to the Middle East by Kofi Annan, Mayoral and other diplomats said.
Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, the French ambassador to the UN and the current council president, confirmed that "there was no agreement on a text tonight, but we will meet on Monday".
But Mahmoud protested, saying while innocent civilians are killed "here we are impotent in having ... some stand to address the situation".
"It sends very wrong signals not only to the Lebanese people but to all Arab people, to all small nations that we are left to the might of Israel and nobody is doing anything," he said.
"We want a resolution. We want a ceasefire. We want very clear stand from the Security Council. But concession after concession arrived to the press release - and even the press release was not possible to issue."
Lebanon's pro-Western government came to power after the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, the former prime minister, in February 2005. This led to Syria's withdrawal of its forces from its smaller neighbour, ending a 29-year occupation.
"We have many reasons to expect much more from the Security Council," said Mahmoud, an ambassador who was sent from Beirut.
And from the United States?
"They were always supportive in the last one-and-a-half years, but when it comes to Israel it seems things change," he said.
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Foreign exodus gathers pace
Saturday 15 July 2006 8:45 PM GMT
Britain has not said if the ships will be used to evacuate Britons
Foreign governments were drawing up plans for a voluntary evacuation of their nationals from Lebanon as Israel kept up air strikes against its neighbour.
Britain is to send two Royal Navy warships to the Middle East as part of the contingency plans for a possible evacuation, the ministry of defence said in London on Saturday.
A ministry of defence spokeswoman said the aircraft carrier Illustrious and the warship Bulwark would shortly be sent to the Middle East, but she would not comment on news reports that they would be used to evacuate Britons from the area.
"As you would expect we are monitoring the situation closely and are engaging in prudent contingency planning," said the spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
"As part of this HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwark will shortly head toward the region. They have been given no specific tasking."
Britain also advised its citizens not to attempt to leave Lebanon under their own steam and said it had not yet made a decision on whether to evacuate its nationals. There are 10,000 Britons in Lebanon, plus a further 10,000 with joint nationality.
France, Italy and Sweden followed Britain's lead in preparing to evacuate their citizens, mainly by land to Syria or by ferry to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
The US State Department said it was working on a plan with the Pentagon to transport Americans to Cyprus, where they can board commercial aircraft for onward travel. There were around 25,000 US citizens in Lebanon.
Air travel from Beirut was made impossible after the international airport was shut down on Thursday after Israeli air strikes blew craters in the runways.
Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, announced that "sea and air facilities, both civilian and military" would be made available for any French national who wished to leave.
France began deploying about 800 military personnel plus aircraft to Lebanon, chartered a ferry and dispatched two warships as part of its operation to evacuate its own citizens and others to Cyprus.
Cyprus as a European Union member said on Friday that it was ready to support a joint EU-co-ordinated mass evacuation of Europeans stranded in Lebanon.
France sends frigate
Naval sources in Toulon said France was sending a landing-craft transporter with four helicopters and equipped with a hospital and operating rooms, should they be needed. A French frigate was also due to arrive in the area on Thursday.
Up to 20,000 French, including residents, tourists and business travellers are currently in Lebanon, according to a foreign ministry estimate.
Italy said the foreign ministry had already organised with its embassy in Beirut a convoy of 410 Italian citizens and other nationals, mainly from the European Union, heading for Syria.
However, witnesses reported that an Israeli bombardment forced the convoy to stop at Tripoli, Lebanon's second city located about 90kms (60 miles) north of Beirut.
About 15 buses carrying European nationals were stopped at Tripoli until security conditions allowed them to continue on the route to Syria, witnesses said.
Arturo Parisi, Italian defence minister, ordered the dispatch of a ship of the Italian navy and two large C130 air force transport planes to the region to help evacuate Italians and other stranded foreigners.
The deployment was of a strictly humanitarian character, a statement said.
Italians staying put
The foreign ministry said there were more than 1,000 Italians in Lebanon, most of whom had said they did not yet wish to leave.
Vienna alerted Israel to plans to evacuate its citizens by bus after the main road into Syria was heavily bombed in recent days, Austrian radio reported. Around 120 Austrians were in Lebanon.
Turkey said a bus carrying 32 of its nationals, mostly tourists and business people, as well as two French nationals, crossed the Yayladagi border gate between Turkey and Syria on Saturday, the Anatolia news agency reported.
From Damascus, an Olympic Airline plane brought 50 Greeks and other nationals from Lebanon to Athens, the Greek foreign ministry said.
More than 100 Spaniards and other nationals resident in Lebanon arrived on Saturday at a military air base near Madrid aboard a transport plane chartered by the defence ministry. Some 600 Spanish nationals are resident in Lebanon, said the foreign ministry.
Around 50 Swiss and 30 Germans arrived in Damascus by bus on Saturday.
Morocco sends C130s
Morocco also announced that it was evacuating several dozen of its nationals by air. The foreign ministry said instructions had come from King Mohammed VI to dispatch C130 transport planes to bring them home.
The Moroccan embassy in Beirut on Friday organised a first group of evacuees who left by road for Damascus.
Ukraine also began evacuating its nationals via Syria. With more than 1,600 in Lebanon, the foreign ministry in Kiev said its embassy in Lebanon and consular services were preparing to evacuate those who wished to leave.
Bulgaria's foreign ministry said meanwhile that it was working on a contingency plan to evacuate Bulgarians from Lebanon. About 500 Bulgarian nationals are currently residing in Lebanon and 300 of them have said they want to evacuate, national radio reported.
Poland said it was making arrangements for the evacuation of 100 of its citizens who wish to leave the country by Monday. Around 700 Poles live in Lebanon.
The 214 Polish soldiers stationed in Lebanon as part of a UN force were not in danger and an evacuation was not planned, Warsaw said.
Sweden also said it was working on evacuation plans for its 2,000 citizens in Lebanon, as did the Netherlands for its 600 nationals. Russia also said it was preparing for a possible evacuation.
Berlin advised its citizens not to go to Lebanon, but said it had no mass evacuation plans for the 1,100 German nationals already there. It said it was in "close and permanent contact" with other EU countries in Beirut and was "preparing for all scenarios".
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Iran denies supplying rocket that hit ship
Saturday 15 July 2006 4:09 PM GMT
Israel claims that Iran provided the missile that hit its ship
Israel claims that the guided missile that hit one of their naval warships, killing at least one sailor, was Iranian-made.
The missile strike, late on Friday, caused substantial damage to the vessel and left four sailors missing.
Israel recovered the body of one of the four on Saturday. The ship was towed back to port in Haifa, still smouldering from the attack.
Brigadier-General Ido Nehushtan, an Israeli commander, said the body was found at sea and that the military were searching for the other three.
Nehushtan said Hezbollah had launched an Iranian-made missile at the vessel.
"This shows very profound thumbprints of Iranian involvement in Hezbollah," he said.
An Israeli military source separately said that a C802 radar-guided missile with a range of 100 kilometres had been fired at the ship as it sat off the coast, enforcing a blockade on Lebanon's ports after two Israeli soldiers were abducted on Wednesday.
"This is sophisticated weaponry," the Israeli military source said. "This is advanced weaponry that is being supplied by one terrorist state [Iran] to another."
It was thought that a second land-to-sea missile had hit and sank an Egyptian merchant ship but it has since emerged that it was a Cambodian merchant vessel that was hit.
The 12 Egyptian sailors on board survived the attack and were collected from the water by other passing ships.
Iran has denied involvement and their embassy in Beirut has released a statement saying: "These accusations by Israeli officials are baseless and constitute an attempt to escape reality and cover up the impotence of this regime in the face of resistance and the Lebanese people."
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, dramatically announced the naval attack during a live telephone call to the group's television station. The rockets were fired as he spoke.
"The surprises that I had promised you start now. Now, at sea, an Israeli warship ... off Beirut is burning and will sink," he said.
Lebanese sources say Hezbollah has more sophisticated weapons systems, most notably short-range anti-aircraft batteries that have not been used so far.
Israel believes that Hezbollah, a group backed by Iran and Syria, has between 10,000 and 12,000 rockets in its arsenal with a variety of ranges, from around 30 to 70 kilometres.
Other defence sources say Hezbollah also has longer range missiles. Asked about the claims, a source close to Hezbollah said: "Wait a few days and you'll find out."
An Israeli military official said the ship is one of the most technologically advanced in the Israeli fleet, boasting an array of Harpoon and Gabriel missiles, along with a system for electronically jamming attacking missiles and other threats.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the missile detection and deflection system was not operating apparently because the sailors did not anticipate such an attack by Hezbollah.
The attack on the ship prompted fresh Israeli strikes on Saturday as Hezbollah answered with more rockets that hit as far as Tiberias in northern Israel -a town farther south than Haifa which was also the scene of bombings.
At least 88 people have died in Lebanon, most of them civilians, in the four-day Israeli offensive sparked by Hezbollah's capture of the two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
On the Israeli side, at least 15 have been killed - four civilians and 11 soldiers.
The violence is the fiercest since 1996 when Israel launched a 17-day attack on Hezbollah strongholds in the south, four years before its troops ended their 22-year occupation of the area.
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World divided over Mideast conflict
Saturday 15 July 2006 7:39 PM GMT
World leaders have acknowledged that the conflict between Israel and Lebanon risks destabilising the region, but have so far appeared divided over how to respond.
As the leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan gathered in Saint Petersburg on Saturday before the G8 summit talks, they all stressed the gravity of the situation.
But while George Bush, the US president, put the blame on Lebanon's Hezbollah for rocket attacks on Israel and the capture of Israeli soldiers, his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, called on Israel to show restraint.
Hezbollah should "lay down its arms" and end the attacks, Bush said, urging Syria to put pressure on it do to so.
Referring to Israel, Putin said that "recourse to violence must be balanced and it must be stopped as soon as possible".
Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, spoke of the dangers of the conflict spreading.
Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defence minister, went further and said there was a "real threat" that other countries could be dragged in.
The European Union, like Russia, described Israel's use of military force as "disproportionate".
A spokesman for Jacques Chirac, the French president, said G8 leaders should not allow themselves to be wedged apart but should put on a united front, "a mobilisation of all of us around this objective of de-escalation".
Tony Blair, the British prime minister, agreed. His spokesman said the summit "shouldn't be a talking shop, it should be setting an agenda" to resolve the crisis.
Hadley said Washington hoped to persuade its G8 partners to agree on a statement blaming Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and Syria for the violence.
The draft US officials are pushing should recognise Hezbollah as being "at the root of this problem", Hadley said, and also name the Palestinian group Hamas as well as Iran and Syria for supporting them.
"I think it is coming together," he told reporters, referring to work on the statement.
Peace process "dead"
In Cairo, meanwhile, Amr Mussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, said that "the Middle East [peace] process is dead" as foreign ministers met in an emergency session and unanimously condemned the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.
As they struggled to maintain a unified front, the foreign ministers who met at the Arab League headquarters, said they would ask the United Nations Security Council to handle the Middle East peace process.
The Arab League "condemns the Israeli aggression in Lebanon which contradicts all international law and regulations", the final statement said.
But the meeting comes at a time of profound differences among Arabs on how to confront the situation in the region.
On Friday, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, condemned the Israeli military aggression in Lebanon but also indirectly criticised Hezbollah for harming Arab interests.
Similar language was used earlier by Saudi Arabia, which indirectly accused Hezbollah of "adventurism" in provoking the Israeli onslaught and putting all Arab nations at risk.
"Bombs are exploding, innocent people are being killed, infrastructures are being destroyed ... The powerful continue to crush the weak, but unfortunately those who hold the power in the world are keeping mum"
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister
Back in Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, the prime minister, called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the "collective punishment" of his country.
He also declared Lebanon "a disaster zone in need of a comprehensive and speedy Arab plan".
Saad Hariri, Lebanon's parliamentary majority leader, urged world powers to stop Israel's "aggression" on his country and called for fellow Arab states to take a strong stand.
Lebanon failed to secure a ceasefire at an emergency UN Security Council debate on Friday, with the United States standing firmly behind its ally Israel.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, a key US ally and Israel's main Muslim ally, criticised the Israeli offensive and the reaction of other countries.
"Bombs are exploding, innocent people are being killed, infrastructures are being destroyed ... The powerful continue to crush the weak, but unfortunately those who hold the power in the world are keeping mum," he said.
Syria not a target
Four days of raids have killed nearly 100 civilians, mostly Lebanese, destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure and crippled its economy.
In an unprecedented action on Saturday afternoon, an Israeli fighter bomber fired four missiles about 200 metres beyond Masnaa, the main crossing point between Lebanon and Syria, Lebanese police said.
However, Damascus denied that its territory had been hit and General Gadi Azincot, Israel's head of military operations, said later that Syria was "not an objective of our operation".
Lebanon has been mired in its own political crisis since the murder of ex-premier Rafiq al-Hariri last year and is still rebuilding after the devastating 1975-1990 civil war.
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