Missiles rain down as Israel slides to war

Airstrike kills 20 civilians fleeing Lebanese village close to border
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The Independent Online

Israeli warplanes yesterday stepped up what has become the most intense bombardment of Lebanon since its 1982 invasion with airstrikes that claimed 34 lives, according to Lebanese security officials

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, said Israel had turned his country into a "disaster zone" and demanded a UN- backed ceasefire. He also pledged to extend his government's control over all of Lebanon, signalling he wants to end Hizbollah's autonomy in the south ­ a top Israeli demand.

The Israeli government said that the thrust of its military offensive in Lebanon would remain intact, despite the serious blow inflicted by Hizbollah's unprecedented use of a radar-guided Iranian missile to attack one of its warships.

The Israeli bombing was directed at what the army described as Hizbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, as well as roads, bridges and fuel installations across the country.

An Israeli missile incinerated a van in southern Lebanon, killing 20 people, among them 15 children. Police said the van was carrying two families fleeing the village of Marwaheen after Israeli loudspeaker warnings to leave their homes.

Other raids on north, east and south Lebanon killed 14 people and wounded 37. At least 103 people, all but four of them civilians, have been killed in Israel's four-day-old assault.

Israel Air Force planes fired rockets at the Masnaa crossing point near the Lebanese-Syrian border. The Israeli military was quick to insist that the bombardment was on the Lebanese side of the border and there had been no intention to target Syria.

At the same time, the Lebanese guerrilla group extended the target area of its rocket barrages into northern Israel by hitting Tiberias, 35km south of the border. The five rockets that hit the town on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee injured eight people, but did not result in any fatalities, unlike the one which hit Moshav Meron outside Safed on Friday night, killing a woman and her grandson. Four Israeli civilians, including a child, have been killed by Hizbollah's bombardment this week.

Israel has now deployed Patriot missile batteries in the northern city of Haifa to intercept rockets.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said that the missile attack on the ship underlined the case for the military operation, which started on Wednesday.

While its air, land artillery and naval assault began in response to the abduction of two soldiers in a cross-border raid by militants, its goals have widened to include ensuring at the very least that Hizbollah is pushed back far enough from Lebanon's southern border to ensure northern Israeli communities are out of range of what Israeli security says are its 10,000 Katyusha rockets.

The ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said: "This shows that Hizbollah is not some motley group of guerrillas but a terrorist movement with cutting-edge military technology."

The Israel Defence Force (IDF) said that it had attacked 44 targets in Lebanon in the past 24 hours, including Hizbollah's HQ in Beirut, fuel tanks in the city's airport, the Al Manar television network and the Beirut-to-Damascus highway.

Reuven Pedatzur, a strategic studies expert at Tel Aviv University, said he did not believe that the solid public support for the military operation would diminish. Dr Pedatzur said the public would support any action to curb Hizbollah, including ground forces.

He added that the militant operations in which one soldier had been captured outside Gaza, two more on the Lebanon border, and Friday night's missile strike on the warship all represented "failures" by the IDF. But he added: "That is gone now. Unfortunately Israel has to become like a crazy player in the game. The crazier it gets the quicker there will be a solution."

The IDF said of the attack on fleeing civilians that it had been targeting rocket-launching sites. While it regretted civilian casualties. responsibility rested with Hizbollah.

Amid reports that Israel was bombing houses under which Hizbollah was thought to have stored arms, Amir Peretz, the Israeli defence minister, said civilians helping Hizbollah in their "homes and yards" could be candidates for attack.