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Monday, July 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Civilians in Lebanon flee as missiles rain from the sky

Los Angeles Times

TYRE, Lebanon — The missiles came from a brilliant summer sky — another layer of terror for the desperate civilians stuck in the hellish landscape of the towns and farmland of south Lebanon.

The Shaita family was struck in their van as they fled their village. The Srour family, vacationing from Germany, came under fire a little later. A family from Qoleili had abandoned their patriarch's body in a fruit orchard to drive north, only to come under attack.

The three families were among those who suffered death and dismemberment as Israeli warplanes struck civilian vehicles attempting to navigate the bomb-rutted roads of southern Lebanon on Sunday.

At least four people were killed and dozens more wounded in the fighting as civilians tried to escape in their cars and vans; at least five such attacks occurred near Tyre. A Lebanese journalist also died in the road strikes.

In its push to rid southern Lebanon of militant Hezbollah forces, Israel has for days ordered all Lebanese civilians to evacuate homes within 20 miles of the Israeli border. But on Sunday, the window for escape seemed to shut.

"We'd like to know why Israel would do such a thing," said Afifi Shaita, 66, at Najem Hospital.

"We were just driving," she said. "We didn't hear anything."

The Shaita family had come back to Lebanon in 2000 from Africa, where they'd been living and working. On Sunday, after days of ceaseless fighting, they packed into a van and headed north, 17 in all.

An Israeli warplane fired on them, killing at least three people: the grandmother, father and a guard from their building. The rest of the family members were wounded.

"Our youngest was 14," Shaita said.

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Although Israel has been warning Lebanese to leave the south, many civilians remain, unable to afford a trip to safety or too afraid to go. Taxis charge $500 for a ride to Beirut. The roads are pitted from explosives, and gasoline has become nearly impossible to find.

But as the fighting drags on, Lebanese are desperate to evacuate. Exhausted, they are straggling north — and some are dying as they go.

At least 381 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah fighters, according to security officials. Nearly 20 percent of the population have fled their homes, Lebanon's finance minister said.

Israel's death toll stands at 36, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 19 soldiers killed in the fighting, which began when the guerrillas snatched two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid July 12.

The Israeli military said it was possible that the civilian vehicles had been mistaken for cars carrying Hezbollah fighters and weapons.

"Tyre is one of the central rocket-launching areas, especially for [attacks against] the Haifa area. That's why the villages around Tyre are being targeted," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, has come under frequent attack during the past 10 days, including rocket attacks Sunday that killed two people.

Dallal said that Hezbollah bases fighters and stores weapons among civilians, making it difficult at times for the Israeli air force to distinguish between combatants and residents.

"We have to act against these things. There's a clear and present danger to the citizens of Israel in the north," Dallal said. "The overall blame for this situation is with Hezbollah."

The scene inside the emergency room was confused; a jumble of people in pain, terrified and bumping into one another in a collective panic.

Ahmed Srour, 15, lay silent on a hospital cot. His head was swathed in bandages. His family had come from Germany on vacation.

"My father was hit," he said. "My father was injured. My father was still in the car."

His father's charred body had been left behind.

The boy's uncle, Darwish Mudaihli, was dead, too. His sister Mariam, 8 months old, had singed hair and a slightly burned face. Blisters swelled the tiny fingers on her left hand to twice their size. In other beds of the Najm Hospital were her other brothers, Ali, 13, and Mahmoud Srour, an 8-year-old whose face was burned beyond recognition.

Many Lebanese here believe Israel, daunted by the invisibility of an enemy that melts into towns and villages, is hitting civilians on purpose.

"This is too criminal, too criminal," said Fatma Khalil, in the waiting room.

Khalil and her family had fled their village of Qoleili, close to the Israeli border, under heavy air assault. Her 90-year-old father was killed in a bombing, she said, and left in an orchard.

"It was unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable this morning," Khalil said. "They were destroying the houses, making huge craters."

The family was making its way over dirt roads when a missile crashed next to their car, Khalil said. The vehicle was destroyed, but the passengers escaped.

"Israel says it is fighting Hezbollah, so let it fight the party," Khalil said. "Why is it taking its anger out on the civilians?"

At Jabal Amel Hospital, its director, physician Ahmed Mroueh, opened the ledger of the wounded.

"This is today," he said. "It begins at No. 267 and ends at 300. This is today, until now."

He pointed out the children: Diana Said, 8; Hatem Naame, 4; Mariam Hamadeh, 7.

He shook his head. "This is the worst day we've seen."

A relief worker arrived in an ambulance carrying two bodies from an attack on Srifa, where more remain in rubble.

"Take them to the government hospital," Mroueh told him. "Our morgue is full."

Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Ellingwood contributed to this story, which includes material from The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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