Israelis pound Lebanon by land, sea and air: Assault shows no sign of ending, Robert Fisk writes from Beirut

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THE Israeli Prime Minister's self-proclaimed intention to produce an 'exodus' of refugees from southern Lebanon appeared yesterday evening to be achieving all that Yitzhak Rabin could have desired, as tens of thousands of terrified civilians clogged the roads north to Beirut, bringing the total number of displaced people in the country to an estimated 250,000.

Far from reducing the scale of their offensive, however, the Israelis last night broadened their assault by mounting gunboat attacks against Tyre and Sidon, setting fire to a gas-storage plant just north of the Siniq river. As Lebanese fire-fighting crews struggled to prevent the installation from exploding, Israeli fighter-bombers and artillery continued to attack more than 60 villages east of Tyre, bringing the overall death-toll to at least 86, most of them civilians, since the Israeli offensive began on Sunday morning.

Many of those who died were Lebanese families crushed to death when their homes were blasted down on top of them by Israeli artillery fire and by bombs dropped by the Israeli Air Force. A United Nations official in southern Lebanon - whose international army has proved as powerless to prevent civilian casualties as the UN in Bosnia - said hundreds of houses had been destroyed over the past four days. In the village of Qleileh a missile fired by an Israeli helicopter hit a building in which 20 civilians were sheltering. Two died instantly; the others suffered serious injuries.

The pro-Iranian Hizbollah, whose destruction in southern Lebanon the Israelis claim they are seeking, continued to promise revenge for the Israeli bombardments, although their militia managed to fire only four Katyusha missiles into Galilee yesterday morning (but there were reports of more later in the day), an unimpressive performance and one which must give some encouragement to the Israelis. Powerless to halt the Israeli offensive, the Lebanese government attempted to ban all public demonstrations in Beirut yesterday, but the Hizbollah staged a street march through the city to seek support for the resistance war which has brought such ferocious retaliation down upon the heads of their fellow Shia Muslims in southern Lebanon.

Officially, the Lebanese authorities continue to support the Hizbollah. 'It is impossible for us to curb the resistance as long as Israel continues to occupy its so-called security zone,' the pro- Syrian Defence Minister, Muhsin Dallul, announced as he toured Lebanese army positions outside Sidon yesterday. But many Lebanese ministers are watching the collapse of international confidence which they have nurtured over two years in their efforts to rebuild Lebanon and are growing desperate in their efforts to bring the country's latest war to an end. The Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, has left for Damascus for talks with President Assad which must include a demand for an end to Hizbollah operations in southern Lebanon, at least for the present.

The Beirut government was deeply shocked by the widening of the conflict yesterday morning when Israeli gunboats began shelling Tyre and Sidon. The ancient ports, which still bear the scars of Israel's invasion of Lebanon 11 years ago, were already swollen with refugees from the hill villages to the east when the first shells landed, sending thousands of refugees off on a second trek for safety northwards towards the capital.

In Beirut, Israeli jets flew low over the international airport at supersonic speed, breaking windows in the terminal with sonic booms. For a second day, Israeli artillery fired into the Palestinian refugee camp at Rashidiyeh, south of Tyre, as well as a range of villages stretching from the Mediterranean to the foothills of Mount Hermon. The city of Nabatiyeh and its neighbouring village of Jibsheet were virtually depopulated after more than 3,500 shells - a UN estimate - had fallen in and around them. The mayor of Jibsheet, a village which largely supports the Hizbollah, was among the first casualties.

Forgetful of two world wars and the horrors of Bosnia, Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese parliament, described the Israeli offensive as 'the crime of the century', a grotesque exaggeration which may have been intended to cover his own embarrassment at Hizbollah's involvement in the southern Lebanese resistance movement. For it was Mr Berri's own Amal militia that once proclaimed itself the defender of the Shias of the south and whose subsequent docility has proved convenient for the Israelis and impotent in the face of their offensive.

Syria, however, has contained its anger at the loss of six of its soldiers at Israel's hands on Sunday, within strictly verbal bounds, using its press to warn of a danger to the Middle East peace talks while avoiding any military action which might provoke a full-scale Israeli air strike against any of the 35,000 Syrian troops based in Lebanon. Even in Beirut, which many fear may be the next target of Israel's air force, Syrian troops are not even bothering to wear their steel helmets in the streets.