Deadline set for 400,000 villagers to get out

War in Lebanon: Residents told to get out or risk shells and bombs as Israel launches biggest attack since Beirut blitz of 1982

The Israelis ordered 400,000 people to leave southern Lebanon by yesterday evening or face air and artillery attacks, which have already killed at least 21 and wounded 49. The exodus is the largest forced movement of people in the Middle East since the flight of the Iraqi Kurds after the Gulf war in 1991.

In the four days since Operation Grapes of Wrath started, Israel has increased the scope of the attack by stages. All people living south of the Litani river, 20 miles from the Israeli frontier, were told yesterday to leave their homes. For the first time the Palestinian refugee camp at Beddawi, outside Tripoli, in north Lebanon, was attacked by Israeli aircraft.

After a cabinet meeting yesterday Israel said it would stop its assault if it received cast-iron guarantees that Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, would stop firing Katyusha rockets across the Lebanese border. An Israeli woman was wounded yesterday when Hizbollah fired nine volleys of rockets.

Hizbollah say it has not lost a single fighter since the Israeli offensive started. As the skies over southern Lebanon cleared of mist and rain, Israeli planes launched 15 raids. A helicopter hit an electricity substation at Jamhour in what Israel says was retaliation for an electricity black- out caused by a Katyusha in northern Israel. Another air attack was near the Syrian border.

Syria said the US risks losing its role of mediator in the Middle East because of its support for the Israeli strikes. Syrian radio said the US position was exposing the region to "real dangers" and urged it to keep the role of the honest broker in the Middle East conflict: "The American stand is far from having the credibility which a superpower should maintain as a peace sponsor in the world."

Israeli commentators see US support for Grapes of Wrath as a vital source of political strength for Israel, enabling it to conduct prolonged military operations. On Friday the US urged Syria and Iran to curb Hizbollah attacks and defended Israel's strikes, saying Islamic radicals must feel the "consequences" of their acts.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said the onslaught had two objectives: to strike at Hizbollah militarily and to make clear Israel expects the Lebanese government to halt the rocket attacks. He ruled out diplomatic action at this stage. In Beirut, a foreign ministry official said Syria and Lebanon backed a return by Hizbollah and Israel to an understanding, brokered by the US in 1993, barring both sides from targeting civilians.

The present offensive is more extensive than Operation Accountability in 1993, since it includes Beirut and is likely to last longer. The aim is to put intolerable pressure on Beirut to exhort President Hafez al- Assad of Syria to curb Hizbollah.

In the past the Syrian leader has resisted attempts by the US to get him to withdraw his support for Hizbollah and his alliance with Iran.

Leading article, page 14

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