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Mideast Fighting Escalates

Times Staff Writers

Israel and Hezbollah escalated their blood feud Sunday as dozens of Lebanese died during airstrikes across their nation and eight Israelis were killed when militants slammed rockets into the port city of Haifa.

As explosions shook the earth and families cowered in shelters, both sides vowed to deliver even fiercer blows in the days to come. And world leaders struggled to find a diplomatic path out of the bloodshed.

At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded in the coastal Lebanese city of Tyre, where Israel attacked a civil defense building used by rescue workers. At least eight more Lebanese died in a strike on a house in the south, including a number of people who also held Canadian citizenship. The Canadian government said eight of its citizens were among those killed in Lebanon.

Israeli warplanes continued to pound Lebanon this morning, striking the northern city of Tripoli and the port in Beirut. At least 13 people were killed in Tripoli, Lebanese television reported.

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The volley of rockets that crashed down on Haifa a few hours after sunrise Sunday was by far the deadliest single blow to Israeli civilians since the conflict flared Wednesday. The two sides have been trading hits since Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon crossed the border and captured two Israeli soldiers.

Israel has answered the abductions with round-the-clock airstrikes on Lebanon, killing more than 140 civilians and wounding hundreds more. Over the same time, 24 Israelis have been killed, half of them soldiers, in attacks by the militant Shiite Muslim fighters.

Although Israel’s clash is with Hezbollah, the attacks on this seaside country appear to have done far greater damage to Lebanese civilians and infrastructure. Hezbollah has continued to shoot an unabated barrage of rockets into Israel, in turn frequently hitting civilians, even after Israeli missiles shattered the airport and highways, struck predominantly Christian neighborhoods and drove thousands of people from their homes.

Israel has attacked Hezbollah offices and the headquarters of the group’s leader. But about 1,500 airstrikes have also targeted a lighthouse, grain silos, power plants, bridges, airports and a truck packed with children, targets with no apparent relationship to Hezbollah.

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“Why are we killing each other? Why are we creating these victims?” asked 60-year-old Yemen Srour, a Lebanese woman whose home was crushed and family members wounded in Sunday morning attacks on Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Crouched on a thin foam mattress at a makeshift refugee shelter in Beirut, Srour used the tails of her Islamic head scarf to dab the tears from her cheeks. “I don’t think there is a point to this,” she said.

Officials from Israel and Hezbollah kept up their fiery vows of vengeance and escalation.

The rocket barrage on Haifa was only the beginning, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech. The Shiite Muslim cleric dared Israel to send ground troops back into southern Lebanon, from which they withdrew in 2000 after 18 years of occupation, and pledged to unleash more surprise attacks on the Jewish state.

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“When Israel crosses all the red lines, we have to do the same,” Nasrallah said. “We will continue. We still have a lot more, and we are only at the beginning.”

Despite the relentless bombings, Israel has not disrupted Hezbollah’s leadership or smashed the militants’ ability to wage guerrilla war, Nasrallah said.

“The Zionist entity is ignorant of what we have on all levels,” Nasrallah said. “We are proud that we are not penetrated by Israeli intelligence, and we have been building up our forces on all levels in secret, waiting for the day when Israel would penetrate Lebanon.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had tough words of his own, promising that the attack on Israel’s third-largest city would trigger “far-reaching consequences.”

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“Our enemies are trying to disrupt life in Israel -- they will fail,” he said. “The public is strong and united in this struggle.”

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the Israeli offensive would continue to grow.

“We must continue with wide-reaching actions and great power while imposing continuous pressure without hesitating,” he said after a Cabinet meeting. “At the end of this conflict, we must bring Hezbollah to a point where it would not be possible for the organization to return to the international border and the line of fire.”

In Russia, leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations meeting in an annual summit Sunday pressed for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

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They issued a statement calling for Islamic guerrillas to end attacks on Israel. In turn, they urged Israel to stop its military operations in Lebanon and to pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip, where they have been battling Hamas and other militant groups for more than two weeks after another Israeli soldier was captured and taken into Gaza.

“These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict,” the statement said of the militants.

In Beirut, United Nations envoy Vijay Nambiar met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose government is largely on the sidelines. “Enough innocent lives have been lost and property infrastructure has been damaged,” Nambiar said during a televised news conference.

A number of countries were scrambling to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon. A U.S. Marine helicopter took 21 nonessential embassy staff and Americans with medical needs to Cyprus, U.S. officials said.

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The attack on Haifa was a shock to many Israelis because the city had been out of range of Hezbollah rockets in previous conflicts.

To the wail of air raid sirens, rescuers rushed to the train station Sunday morning after a rocket punched a hole in the roof of a shed, hitting an area where two dozen train maintenance workers had gathered. Blood-splashed equipment and debris littered the scene.

At least 38 people were reported injured in the attack. Haifa was a ghost town after the strike, with large public gatherings called off. Most people stayed indoors.

“This is certainly a sad morning,” said Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav. “The terrorist enemy has absolutely declared war on Haifa.”

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Israel quickly retaliated with a fresh round of bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs, heavily Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that are the undisputed territory of Hezbollah. The headquarters of Al Manar, Hezbollah’s satellite television station, were struck, employees said, along with nearby residential apartment buildings.

Al Manar was briefly knocked off the air but quickly flickered back. Hezbollah had set up a contingency studio in anticipation of the attack, foreign editor Ibrahim Moussawi said.

“We took precautions,” Moussawi said. “We know who we are dealing with.”

Hezbollah offices in Beirut’s southern suburbs have stood deserted since last week, and the only people roaming the streets have been Hezbollah’s security guards, guns and walkie-talkies in tow. Officials and the spokesman for the organization have disappeared from public view and largely stopped answering calls -- reportedly in fear that Israel can trace their whereabouts through their mobile phones.

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In the attack on Tyre, a missile launched from a warship in the Mediterranean Sea tore the top three stories off the building. Lebanese television showed rescue workers hauling bodies from the rubble.

The Canadians who died in their southern village were members of the same family who had come home to spend their summer vacation with relatives, according to Lebanese news reports. Their house came under fire from Israel.

Explosions continued to rumble throughout Lebanon on Sunday. As night fell, Israeli rockets crashed into the airport. Much of Beirut had lost electricity, and desperate families crammed themselves into muggy, pungent schoolhouses that are being used as makeshift shelters.

Israel dropped leaflets over towns in southern Lebanon, the Hezbollah heartland and the recipient of the heaviest airstrikes, warning civilians to evacuate ahead of even more intense attacks.

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A U.N. team spent most of the day trapped in the southern village of Marwaheen, said Milos Strugar, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese government had asked the international team to escort to safety 150 villagers trapped by an air assault, he said.

But when the U.N. personnel arrived in Marwaheen, Israel began to shell the roads out of town. Hours passed before they could leave.

“It’s very difficult -- the south is like a war zone,” Strugar said by telephone. “There are no safe roads.”

Across the border in Israel, train and bus transport was halted across the north as rockets fell on half a dozen other towns, including the coastal communities of Acre and Nahariya and the eastern cites of Afula and Upper Nazareth. Authorities declared a state of alert, and summer day camps and most government offices were ordered closed. Universities canceled exams, and even the courts in the region were operating only on an emergency basis.

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As a precaution, officials declared a heightened alert in Tel Aviv, about 75 miles south of the frontier and previously thought to be well out of Hezbollah rocket range. But the city could be targeted if Hezbollah were to use its suspected arsenal of Iranian Zilzal-2 rockets, Israeli officials said.

The type of weapon involved in the Haifa strike was still being determined, Israeli officials said.

Hezbollah said it used Raad-2 and Raad-3 missiles, rather than the less powerful Katyusha rockets that had previously been fired at northern Israel. Former Israeli army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, now a Cabinet minister, described the rockets used in the Haifa strike as “Syrian ammunition.” Israel also said Hezbollah had made first use of Iranian-made Fajr missiles, with a 25-mile range and a much bigger warhead.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed the criticism of Syria and Iran on Sunday, blaming them in part for the crisis.

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“I absolutely see that Syria and Iran are playing a part in this. They’re not even trying to hide their hand,” Rice said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Rice declined to say whether the U.S. would go so far as to support Israel if it chose to strike Iran in retaliation for that country’s alleged role in some of the missile strikes hitting Israel.

Many Lebanese scoff at criticism that Hezbollah is using Iranian-made weaponry, pointing out bitterly that the United States manufactures much of Israel’s arsenal.

Nasrallah denied Israeli reports that Iran had sent soldiers to help Hezbollah fight Israel. He also said he expected the Jewish state to send its soldiers into southern Lebanon in a ground assault.

“I promise them surprises on the ground,” Nasrallah said.

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The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported that elite forces had been deployed in Lebanon.

But Israeli military analysts said a large-scale ground offensive would occur only after military strategists felt that other options -- including the air campaign, the naval blockade and the severing of major land routes -- had been exhausted.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Key players in the conflict

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah

The head of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political party and militia, allowed his guerrillas to cross into Israel from Lebanon and kill eight soldiers and capture two others, sparking the current conflict. After Israeli warplanes destroyed his headquarters last week, he vowed to unleash “open war” on Israel. He is widely considered the most powerful man in Lebanon. Nasrallah has steered Hezbollah into becoming a member of Lebanon’s government, while keeping its armed militia.

Hamas

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The Islamic political party and militia has wide support among Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip. It won a majority of seats in Palestinian legislative elections in January and formed a government under Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist and became widely known by sponsoring suicide bombings in Israeli cities. It is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, Israel and the European Union.

Ehud Olmert

Israel’s prime minister was elected in March on a platform that called for withdrawing some Israeli settlers from territories the country has occupied since the late 1960s and setting an eastern border for Israel, either through negotiations with the Palestinians or unilaterally.

Unlike most recent Israeli prime ministers, he lacks a strong military background. His current military campaigns appear to be aimed at smashing Hamas and Hezbollah.

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Stack reported from Beirut and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Haifa, Maura Reynolds in Washington and David Holley and James Gerstenzang in Strelna, Russia, and special correspondent Rania Abouzeid in Beirut contributed to this report.


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