Thousands of Lebanese flee to Beirut from unstable south

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The Independent Online

As foreign powers mobilised to evacuate their citizens, tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians were fleeing the country's southern areas last night, following six days of near-continual bombardment by Israeli artillery and air power.

Officials said more than 58,000 people had been displaced by the fighting and 14,000 have headed to the relative safety of Beirut, despite the fact that Lebanon's capital has been attacked every day since Thursday.

Thousands of people from Beirut's southern Shia suburbs, a stronghold of Hizbollah and a major target for Israeli bombing raids, have also fled into the city centre to avoid the daily air strikes that have killed an average of 33 Lebanese civilians a day.

Speaking from the cramped and increasingly squalid Sanayeh Gardens - one of Beirut's oldest parks, used as a refugee camp during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon - Ali Sharara, 21, said, "My brother and I have been here more than two days. My mother and sisters are in Ashrafieh, I don't know where exactly. I can't believe they [the Israelis] are doing all this for two captives. This is just an excuse."

Another refugee, Hussein Ajami, said: "We've been sleeping outside on the grass. They keep telling us about schools that have opened their doors, but when we get there we find them already full."

The reappearance of so many refugees in Lebanon is a stark and depressing reminder of the country's 15-year civil war which killed more than 100,000 people and created a refugee crisis. Many of the sites that once housed refugees from the civil war and Israel's previous invasion of Lebanon are fast filling up again.

There are also fears that the arrival of so many refugees may upset Beirut's delicate sectarian balance. Most of the new arrivals are Shia Muslims who are having to find shelter and support in Beirut's Sunni and Christian areas.

The government's struggling Interior Ministry began trying to set up gathering points where families and refugees could try and find shelter. Hizbollah supporters were also out in force organising refugee centres.