Mass Exodus Continues as Lebanon Seeks Aid
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is demanding that the international community impose a cease-fire to end the eight days of fighting that have left 300 Lebanese and about 30 Israelis dead.
Siniora said he would seek compensation from Israel for what he described as the "unimaginable losses" to the nation's infrastructure.
But the fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon is not likely to end anytime soon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reiterated his position Wednesday when he told his Cabinet ministers that the offensive will continue "as long as necessary."
Publicly, Israeli leaders are demanding the removal of Hezbollah militants from the area of the Israel-Lebanon border, the release of two abducted Israeli soldiers now in the hands of Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese Army on the border to prevent future Hezbollah attacks.
But privately, some Israeli officials have hinted they'd be prepared to accept a cease-fire if a robust international force can provide security guarantees on the border.
Still, the Israeli public remains united in its view that the war should continue until Hezbollah's military capability is destroyed.
Overnight, Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes on several targets in Lebanon, leaving at least 49 people dead. Among the areas hit were the Christian suburbs of Hadath, Ashrafiyeh, Shuweifat.
A fierce gunbattle erupted on the Israel-Lebanon border between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants, leaving at least two Israeli soldiers and one Hezbollah guerilla dead.
According to Israeli military officials, small units of soldiers are operating in southern Lebanon in a bid to destroy Hezbollah outposts along the border. Israel's military chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, says Israeli warplanes have crippled Hezbollah's capability.
Still, Hezbollah guerillas continue to launch rocket strikes into northern Israel on a daily basis. A mid-afternoon salvo hit Nazareth, Haifa, Tiberias and Safed. In Nazareth, a rocket slammed into a building, killing two children.
"You don't see the damage to Hezbollah, the media cannot see it," said Retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, arguing that the group has been badly hit.
Meanwhile, critics of Israel's counteroffensive are calling on the Bush administration to push for restraint.
Congressman Ray LaHood (R-IL), who represents many Lebanese-Americans, tells NPR that he believes the Israeli airstrikes are causing unnecessary suffering among Lebanon's civilian population.
"I don’t fault Israel for going into the southern part of the country and really trying to bring down Hezbollah," LaHood said. "But I don't see what good it does to shut down the economy, and shut down the country, by closing the airport."
The House of Representatives is expected to pass a nonbinding resolution expressing solidarity with Israel on Wednesday, blaming the crisis on Hezbollah. On Tuesday, the Senate passed a similar measure unanimously.
The state department is coming under criticism in some quarters for its perceived slow response in evacuating American citizens currently in Lebanon. France, Australia, Italy and Sweden have already begun to evacuate their citizens. About 1,000 Americans were ferried out of Lebanon on Wednesday with a private ferry contracted by the U.S. government.
"We will continue to facilitate Americans to leave as long as we need to," U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feldman said.
U.S. Navy vessels are headed to Lebanon to help with the evacuations.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice will meet with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at the United Nations on Thursday. Rice is expected to visit the region sometime after the meeting.
Annan is pushing for a robust international force to be deployed in southern Lebanon. Since 1978, UNIFIL, a U.N.-peacekeeping contingent made up of about 2,000 troops, has monitored the border. But UNIFIL has largely been ineffective at preventing cross-border skirmishes.
"UNIFIL, I'm afraid, is a joke," said former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich. "They’ve been there for 26 years and since then, there have been so many skirmishes [along the border]."
The Bush administration has, so far, opposed the deployment of an international force. On Wednesday, President Bush suggested that Syria and Iran were fuelling the crisis by encouraging Hezbollah. Many regional analysts believe Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim organization, is funded and trained by Iran and Syria.
Some European officials have told NPR they believe Iran is trying to divert attention away from its controversial nuclear program by pushing Hezbolloah to continue its assault.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Louise Arbour warned that the fighting could result in war crimes charges for those in command-and-control positions.
"The scale of the killings in the region could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved," Arbour said. "Particularly those in a position of command-and-control."
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