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With deadly force, Israeli warplanes hit fleeing Lebanese civilians today and Hezbollah militants lobbed rockets at townspeople across northern Israel, even as diplomatic efforts began to gain traction.
Israel for the first time signaled willingness to accept an international military force to quell the raging violence, although there was no immediate consensus on its composition. The evacuation of American and other foreign nationals from blood-soaked Lebanon, meanwhile, appeared to be nearing completion.
Stunned at the destruction wrought in Beirut, the United Nations' top humanitarian official condemned the Israeli raids and pleaded for safe passage of emergency supplies for more than 750,000 Lebanese displaced by 12 days of Israeli bombardment aimed at destroying Hezbollah positions.
And in a development steeped in historical irony, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, author of Israel's ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was reported to have taken a turn for the worse. He has been in a coma since a massive stroke in January, and today hospital officials said his condition deteriorated.
Despite Israel's steady air strikes, which today pounded the southern suburbs of Beirut, the port of Sidon and areas around the southern town of Tyre, Israel has still not managed to silence Hezbollah rocket fire. Two people were killed today in the Israeli city of Haifa and a dozen injured around northern Israel in repeated Hezbollah barrages.
In Lebanon, the civilian toll also continued to mount. Caught in Israeli strikes today were a minibus and a convoy of cars attempting to flee villages around Tyre following Israeli warnings to evacuate. Three passengers in the minibus were killed and 13 wounded, reporters at the scene said. A fourth motorist also died, and a Lebanese news photographer was reported killed when an Israeli missile hit near the taxi in which she was traveling.
At least three other people were killed, including two boys, in bombing raids on the border towns of Manara, Meis al-Jabal and Blida, all near Tyre, a town 10 miles north of the Israeli border that Israeli army commanders believe Hezbollah uses to fire the rockets that reach Haifa.
Israel also attacked the port of Sidon early today, destroying a religious complex linked to Hezbollah and wounding four people, reports from the zone said.
Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s top official for humanitarian relief, said civilians in both Lebanon and Israel were "paying a disproportionate price", but he found the punishment in inflicted on the Lebanese to be especially harsh.
Egeland decried what he said "seems to be an excessive use of force" in southern Beirut and warned that civilian casualties will continue to mount at the current pace of violence.
A senior Israeli official said the government regretted the "tragic" loss of life in Lebanon and said the military was instructed to avoid civilian casualties but that Hezbollah often fights from inside population centers.
"In modern warfare, unfortunately, you're seeing here a state, a modern liberalized democratic state, confronting a terrorist organization, which operates from within civilian communities and doesn't have any rules to abide by," cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said in a CNN interview. "Whereby people are sleeping with the missile launchers, and the missiles themselves in the living room." On the Israeli-Lebanese border, where Israeli tanks and troops were amassed to back up land incursions, Israeli artillery pummeled the hilltop Lebanese village of Maroun el-Ras, kicking up smoke and dust. Military commanders said on Saturday they had overpowered the village, but the artillery fire suggested continued resistance.
Maroun el-Ras is the bridgehead for control of a six-mile-wide strip that Israeli forces want to rid of Hezbollah fighters. Army field officers say Maroun al-Ras has been used regularly by Hezbollah to launch Katyusha rockets into Israel, the stony ridgetop peppered with buried bunkers and reinforced tunnels that are now giving cover to Hezbollah guerrillas.
Israeli officials described the offensive as a series of "pinpoint" operations conducted by relatively small numbers of troops, and said that they have achieved some success in destroying Hezbollah weaponry and killing fighters. Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, who heads the army's northern command, said cross-border raids also targeted at least two other positions along the border that were used by Hezbollah fighters as outposts or weapons caches.
Adam told reporters today that the offensive could last for weeks, and would include ground incursions on the border and deeper inside Lebanon, if necessary. "This should end in victory. And to me, victory is that Hezbollah is not only no longer on the contact line but also not remain an organization with rocket, missile or other capabilities," Adam said. "This is the required achievement and this will be victory." By this evening, Hezbollah had launched about 90 more rockets at a number of towns in northern Israel. The hills above the Israeli border town of Kiryat Shmona were ablaze, as rockets ignited the dry, scraggly brush and spread a shroud of smoke over an already largely deserted community. Also hit were Safed, Rosh Pina and Acre, in addition to two deadly strikes at Haifa.
One of the victims in Haifa was struck and killed by shrapnel as he was driving a car on a main road and the second died after a rocket struck the factory where he was working, Israeli police said.
Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, has suffered the greatest numbers of fatalities in more than 2,200 rocket attacks across a broad band of northern Israel. Last Sunday, eight railway workers were killed when a rocket made a direct hit on a rail depot.
"The war is not over," Haifa's mayor told the city's citizens in a somber broadcast message. "Stay in shelters and protected areas." Philippe Douste-Blazy, French foreign minister in Israel for diplomatic talks, was visiting Haifa when air-raid warning sirens went off. His convoy pulled off the road, the delegation sought refuge in a residential building, and Douste-Blazy had to duck for cover in a stairwell.
In addition to France, foreign ministry officials from Britain and Germany met today with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem on the eve of the expected arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After initially rebuffing the idea, Israel Sunday said it would consider deployment of an international stabilization force on the border.