17 dead in Lebanon after Israel steps up attacks

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The Independent Online

Israeli fighter bombers targetted Lebanese infrastructure today, setting Beirut's port ablaze and hitting a Hizbollah stronghold in attacks that killed at least 17 people. Hizbollah retaliated by firing rockets that flew farther into Israel than ever before.

Israeli planes and artillery guns killed 17 people and wounded at least 53 others in the overnight attacks, Lebanese security officials said as the death toll from the conflict rose to more than 200 - 196 in Lebanon, according to the officials, and 24 in Israel.

In their raids on Beirut today, Israeli planes killed two people in the harbour and started a large fire that was later extinguished.

The Israeli jets also set fire to a gas storage tank in the northern neighbourhood of Dawra and another fuel storage tank at Beirut airport, sending plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. The airport has been closed since Thursday, when Israeli jets blasted its runways.

Israeli missiles also blasted southern Beirut, causing three explosions that shook the city. The targets were not immediately clear, but Hizbollah has a host of offices, clinics, schools, social clubs and the homes of its leaders in the southern suburbs.

Hizbollah responded by launching Katyusha rockets at the town of Atlit, about 35 miles south of the border and some five miles south of the port city of Haifa. Nobody was hurt in the attack, but Hizbollah rockets killed eight people in Haifa yesterday.

Hizbollah fired more rockets at Haifa today, but no injuries were immediately reported, according to Israeli security officials and medics.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the deployment of international forces to stop the bombardment of Israel and to persuade the Jewish state to stop attacks on Hizbollah, while the European Union said it was considering the deployment of a peacekeeping force.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also arrived in Syria for talks with the government there on the crisis. Syria and Iran have applauded Hizbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, which triggered the offensive.

Israel also kept up pressure in the Gaza Strip as it searched for a kidnapped soldier, bombing the empty Palestinian Foreign Ministry building for the second time in less than a week in what it said was a warning to the ruling Hamas party.

Israel launched the offensive on June 28 after Hamas-linked militants carried out a cross-border attack on a military outpost, killing two soldiers and capturing one other. Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrillas joined the fray last week, attacking a military patrol in northern Israel, killing eight soldiers and capturing two others.

Israel said its planes and artillery struck 60 targets in Lebanon overnight as its military sought punishment for the barrage of 20 rockets on Haifa, the country's third-largest city and one that had not been hit before the current round of fighting began last Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed "far-reaching consequences" for the Haifa attack. The eight deaths made it Hizbollah's deadliest strike ever on Israel.

Israeli officials accused Syria and Iran of providing Lebanese guerrillas with sophisticated weapons, saying the missiles that hit Haifa had greater range and heavier warheads than those Hizbollah had fired before.

Meanwhile, forty Britons have been airlifted out of the war torn Lebanese capital Beirut, the Foreign Office said today.

They are the first of as many as 10,000 UK citizens in the country who may leave.

The evacuees, mostly children and the ill, were put on helicopters which took the Foreign Office's rapid deployment team and a military team planning the main evacuation into the capital yesterday.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We made use of the helicopters bringing in the rapid deployment team.

"Rather than send them back empty we filled them with 40 people, mostly made up of children, families with young children and people with long-term illness."

The FCO spokesman said the helicopters could only take a small number because of the limited fuel supply.

They were flown from Beirut back to the departure point in Cyprus.

He said a large scale evacuation plan was being devised to help all those Britons still in Lebanon.

He added: "It is not feasible to fly the helicopters back and forth between Cyprus and Beirut."