HAIFA, Israel – Lebanese guerillas fired a relentless barrage of rockets into the northern Israeli city of Haifa on Sunday, killing eight people at a train station and wounding seven others, police said. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that there would be "far-reaching consequences" for the attack.
The attack was the worst strike on Israel since violence broke out along the border with Lebanon last week after Hezbollah guerillas captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Israeli authorities warned all residents in the central city of Tel Aviv and north to be on heightened alert, reflecting the longer range of the missile attacks.
For the past five days, Israel has been pounding Lebanon with airstrikes and the guerillas have been launching rockets into northern Israel.
Israeli officials said the guerillas, who had been firing relatively small Katyusha rockets, launched at least four Iranian-made Fajr missile at Haifa. Those missiles, with a range of 45 kilometers (28 miles), have a far larger warhead than the Katyushas. Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the head of Israel's northern command, confirmed that Iranian-made missiles were fired at Haifa. It was the first time Hezbollah had used the Fajr missiles in attacking Israel.
Hezbollah guerillas said they hit Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, with Raad-2 and Raad-3 missiles. The attack came after Israeli warplanes bombed a major power station south of Beirut and other targets in Lebanon. But it was certain to invite a far harsher Israeli retaliation.
Soon after the attack, Israeli warplanes hit the south Beirut stronghold of Hezbollah with at least six airstrikes, shaking the Lebanese capital and sending a cloud of thick smoke rising over the neighborhood. Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station briefly went off the air.
The Israeli air force dropped leaflets over south Lebanon telling residents to leave immediately before an imminent attack.
"Nothing will deter us," Olmert said at the beginning of his government's weekly Cabinet meeting. "There will be far-reaching consequences in our relations on the northern border and in the area in general."
At least 20 rockets slammed into Haifa on Sunday, and one of them hit a section of the train depot where crews perform maintenance on the trains, tearing a huge hole in the roof and killing eight people. One body was covered in a white bag and placed on a stretcher on the ground.
"I saw bodies in the warehouse. The picture was not pleasant," one witness, who identified himself as Igor, told Israel's Army Radio.
About 30 people were working in the depot at the time of the attack, Ofer Litzevski, an official with the train company, told reporters.
Other rockets landed near the city's major oil refinery, gas storage tanks and a major street during the busy morning rush hour, Israeli police and emergency officials said. Sunday is a workday in Israel. Police cordoned off the train station and the other areas where the rockets hit.
Footage on Israel's Channel 10 showed smoke rising over Haifa soon after the attacks, and air raid sirens could be heard wailing.
Mayor Yona Yahav warned people against holding large gatherings and canceled all cultural events in the city. Trains in northern Israel were halted and bus service in Haifa and north was stopped.
"Anyone who was under the illusion that Hezbollah was a motley bunch of guerrillas with AK-47s and some (rocket propelled grenades) should see these sorts of attacks as a wakeup call," Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "Hezbollah is a very well organized, heavily armed, military structure that has received, over the last decade from Iran and Syria, state of the art weaponry."
Hezbollah said it intentionally avoided hitting petrochemical installations in Haifa, according to a statement read on Al-Manar.
"But the next time, it (Hezbollah) will not spare anything in Haifa and its surroundings," the statement said.
Israel deployed a Patriot missile battery in Haifa on Saturday to protect the city against surface-to-surface missiles. The army declined to explain why it did not work against the attack on Sunday.
Hezbollah said it fired dozens of rockets at Haifa at 9 a.m.
"After the enemy continued all night their destructive shelling of (Beirut's) southern suburb and other areas ... the resistance movement fired dozens of rockets on Haifa," the Hezbollah statement said.
Rockets fired by Lebanese militants also hit Acco, Nahariya and several other northern towns, and residents of the region were told to head to bomb shelters.
"The attacks were meant to harm citizens, and this is an evil war of Hezbollah against the state of Israel and its residents," Olmert said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday blamed extremists in Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's main backers, for fueling the violence.
"There has been a hesitation in putting the real truth of the situation out to people, and the fact is that are those people out in the region -- notably Iran and Syria -- who do not want this process of democratization, peace and negotiation to succeed," Blair said.
Adam, the head of Israel's Northern Command, said Iranian troops were helping Hezbollah fire Iranian-made missiles at Israel. Hamid Reza Asefi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied claims that his country had troops in Lebanon or had given missiles to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah guerillas hit Haifa with a rocket for the first time ever Thursday. Israel responded by stepping up its airstrikes in Lebanon, which it began last week after militants captured two soldiers in a cross-border raid.
The attack on Haifa raised Israel's death toll from the fighting to at least 23, 11 soldiers and 12 civilians.
Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon have killed 106 people, mostly civilians.
Olmert said that Israel's offensive did not intend to harm Lebanese civilians.
"We want to live our lives in peace and in good neighborly relations," he said. "Unfortunately, there are those who misinterpret our wishes for peace in the wrong way. We have to no intention of bending in the face of these threats."
"Our enemies are trying to disrupt the lifestyle in Israel. They will fail," he said.