Thousands of Lebanese flee crushing Israeli bombardment

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TENS OF THOUSANDS of Lebanese refugees were flooding north into Beirut last night after Israel launched an unprecedented and lethal phase of its Lebanon bombardment, targeting dozens of southern villages and towns, inflicting widespread civilian casualties.

The United Nations said more than 335,000 villagers had fled north, while Israeli intelligence sources put the figure at 150,000.

On the third day of Israel's air, sea and land assault on pro-Iranian militiamen in Lebanon, the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said that the aim was to create a flow of refugees to force the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to take action against the gunmen.

As the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, cut short a visit to Asia and the President, Bill Clinton, praised Syria for its restraint in keeping out of the conflict, Mr Rabin appears to have decided that world opinion will allow him to create a civilian exodus to pursue his military aims in south Lebanon, where Israel is primarily trying to eliminate the pro-Iranian group Hizbollah. But Syria warned yesterday that the Middle East was on the verge of a new war.

Although villagers had been warned by radio to evacuate their homes, thousands of civilians were caught by under the Israeli artillery and air attacks. As fires ranged in the hills of south Lebanon, roads were jammed with fleeing refugees, while villagers scattered for cover.

The usually bustling market town of Nabatiyeh looked like a ghost town, after virtually all its 15,000 inhabitants fled. Only ambulances sped through the empty streets. At least 20 shells a minute hammered the town and surrounding area as Israeli planes firing missiles screamed down on nearby villages.

The bombings followed the most extensive air and artillery offensive since Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, sparking Israeli fears of guerrilla retaliation on its interests abroad.

However the reaction from Hizbollah leaders showed the attacks are likely to intensify the violence. 'We tell Rabin he is illusioned if he thinks he can crush the Islamic resistance. We promise him he will pay a dear price,' Hizbollah's secretary- general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said in south Lebanon last night.

The number of Lebanese dead in the past three days was estimated at 50 with 250 wounded, but the numbers were said to be rising rapidly.

Hizbollah demonstrated that its capabilities had not been affected by the action, firing off dozens more Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, forcing more Israelis, for their part, to flee south, or take cover in bunkers. Two Israeli civilians and one Israeli soldier have been killed in three-day offensive.

Israeli bombers continued to seek out training camps and ammunition dumps used by Hizbollah and Palestinian militias throughout Lebanon and Israeli gunboats patrolled the Lebanese ports of Sidon and Tripoli, imposing a naval blockade.

With the conflict seeming to be spiralling out of control questions were being asked in Jerusalem about how Mr Rabin hopes to pull back from the brink of full-scale war. There was speculation that that Israel's next move might be a ground offensive.

Israel's aims, page 11

Leading article, page 19