Fleeing Lebanese dodge aerial fire

UN emergency relief coordinator called Sunday on Israel to open land, air, and water routes to aid.

With an expression of utmost calm, the injured woman allowed herself to be lowered from the roof of the minibus into the waiting arms of two Lebanese Red Cross volunteers. The rescue workers had extracted her through a jagged hole in the top of the vehicle, crumpled by a missile fired minutes earlier by an Israeli helicopter.

The narrow roads that meander through the valleys and undulating chalky hills east of Tyre were places of terror Sunday as Israeli helicopters attacked vehicles fleeing Israel's 12-day onslaught against south Lebanon. "Today is the day of the cars," says Ahmad Mrowe, director of the Jabal Amal Hospital in Tyre. "It's been very bad."

By late afternoon, at least six people had been killed and 35 more wounded, according to hospital sources, all of them thought to be civilians heeding warnings to leave before the onslaught intensifies and seeking refuge north of the Litani River.

An officer with the UN peacekeeping force says that the Israelis had told them they would not hinder cars traveling north on main roads. But the overwhelming evidence Sunday suggested that cars were being attacked regardless of their occupants and direction of travel. "They have been hitting civilian cars all over the place," says Peter Bouckart of Human Rights Watch, who had just returned to Beirut from Tyre. "I have been in many war zones, but this is one of the most dangerous places I have seen."

The conflict so far has killed 368 Lebanese and 37 Israelis. Israeli air raids struck Beirut and east and south Lebanon, killing eight civilians and wounding 100, many in Tyre. UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland called for the violence to stop to allow aid through. Mr. Egeland said he would ask Israel to open air, land, and sea corridors to get aid to between half a million and a million people, Reuters reported.

Air strikes hit a Shiite religious center in Sidon, wounding four people, and at least one civilian was killed in the eastern Bekaa Valley. A Lebanese photographer, Layal Najib, was killed near Qana during a bombardment, the first fatality among journalists.

Within moments of leaving the perimeter of Tyre, which has become a relative haven, the dangers of traveling the bomb-cratered roads were made clear. In the Horsh district outside Tyre, an aerial bomb had gouged a deep crater in the wide road, blocking passage. A short detour through an orange orchard led back to the main road. But there were more craters, perhaps one every mile.

The streets of Hannawiyeh and Qana were littered with glass, electricity cables, sheet metal from store fronts, stones, and concrete. Many houses showed signs of shell damage. Indications of hasty flight by residents could be found in crashed and abandoned cars on the side of the road. Israeli jets rumbled overhead amid the almost constant thump of artillery fire.

In Qana, a village that for Lebanese is synonymous with the massacre of more than 100 civilians in April 1996, during Israel's last major offensive against Hizbullah guerrillas, a few shops were open but no one was in the streets. In Siddiquine, the bombed road meant another diversion through glass-strewn back streets. The village was under shellfire.

Now and then a car flashed past, crammed with people, the driver hunched over, his eyes fixed on the road. Some passengers held out fluttering white sheets for the benefit of the Israeli planes above.

The stricken minibus had come to a stop on the side of a road cut into a steep valley midway between Siddiqine and Yater. Red Cross medics said there were 19 people in the vehicle, all from the small village of Tiri, seven miles southeast.

Twelve-year-old Abbas Shayter said that villagers had been instructed by the Israelis to leave, and his family had been waiting for transport. "Someone came for us and we drove with other cars out of the village," he says. "We were trying to keep up when we were hit." He said that his grandmother, uncle, and another man had been killed.

Abbas's brother Ali sobbed beside his prone mother, whose left arm was bandaged. She raised her right hand and held her son's arm consolingly.

The medics loaded the ambulances with the casualties and made the perilous return journey to the Najem Hospital on the edge of Tyre. A car burned on the road just outside the hospital, the result of a helicopter strike. The three occupants had just enough time to escape.

"This is getting worse and worse by the day," says Qassem Chaalan, a Lebanese Red Cross volunteer. His unit had made 20 trips into the Tyre hinterland that morning alone to recover casualties. By midday, he was reporting that 10 cars, including an ambulance belonging to a local charity, had been attacked in the vicinity of Tyre.

At Jabel Amel Hospital, the casualties continued to arrive, along with more reports of targeted cars – two from Tiri, including the minibus, one from Qlayle, one from Aitit, and two from Jmaijme.

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