BEIRUT, Lebanon – Waves of warplanes thundering through the darkness bombed Beirut's southern suburbs for hours early Sunday, a day after Israel stepped up its air strikes and tightened a noose around this reeling nation.
The Israeli air force on Saturday hit strongholds of the Hezbollah Shiite Muslim guerrilla group, bombed central Beirut for the first time, and pounded seaports and a key bridge. Then, after midnight and until 2:30 a.m., about 18 powerful explosions rocked southern Beirut, where Hezbollah is headquartered and much of the air assault has been aimed since cross-border hostilities erupted Wednesday.
Israeli jets could be heard over the city, much of it darkened because airstrikes have knocked out power stations and the fuel depots feeding them.
Hezbollah's TV aired footage showing two long columns of smoke rising from buildings into the night sky. Much of Shiite-populated southern Beirut was deserted, its residents having fled east to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
Trying to defuse the violence, which began when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid, Lebanon's prime minister indicated he might send his army to take control of southern Lebanon from Hezbollah — a move that might risk civil war.
In a more ominous sign that the struggle could spread, Israel accused Iran of helping launch a missile that damaged an Israeli warship, a charge both Hezbollah and Iran denied.(Full story)
Hezbollah, meanwhile, fired waves of rockets ever deeper into Israel, and Israeli officials warned that Tel Aviv, 70 miles inside Israel, could be hit.
The death toll in the four-day-old conflict rose above 100 in Lebanon, and stood at 15 in Israel.
Despite worldwide alarm, there was little indication either Western or Arab nations could muster a quick diplomatic solution. In New York, Lebanon accused the United States of blocking a U.N. Security Council statement calling for a cease-fire. Diplomats said Washington for now preferred to see the issue dealt with at this weekend's Group of Eight meeting in Russia and in other ways.
The United States and France, meantime, prepared to evacuate their citizens, and Britain dispatched an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean in apparent preparation for evacuations.
The Western-backed prime minister, criticizing both Israel and Hezbollah, also pledged to reassert government authority over all Lebanese territory, suggesting his government might deploy the Lebanese army in the south, which Hezbollah effectively controls.
That would meet a repeated U.N. and U.S. demand. But any effort by Saniora's Sunni Muslim-led government to use force against the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas could trigger another bloody civil war in Lebanon. Many fear the 70,000-strong army itself might break up along sectarian lines, as it did during the 1975-90 civil war.
Reacting to Saniora's statements, Israel's Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Lebanon must prove it was serious by deploying troops on the border.
"We have to see what they do and not what they say," Peres told Israel's Channel 2 TV.
Iran, meanwhile, denied any role in the fighting, disputing Israeli claims that 100 Iranian soldiers had helped Hezbollah attack an Israeli warship late Friday.
There has been no sign in Lebanon of Iranian Revolutionary Guards for 15 years. But Iran is one of Hezbollah's principal backers along with Syria, providing weapons, money and political support. And many believe Iran and Syria are fueling the battle to show their strength in the region.
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again condemned Israel's Lebanon offensive Saturday, telling Tehran's state television, "The Zionist regime behaves like Hitler."
Despite global concerns, there were few signs of diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting.
President Bush, on a trip to Russia, said it was up to Hezbollah "to lay down its arms and to stop attacking." But Russian President Vladimir Putin urged a balanced approach by Israel and said it appeared the nation was pursuing wider goals than the return of abducted soldiers. (Full story)
Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, adopted a resolution calling for U.N. Security Council intervention. But moderates led by Saudi Arabia, bickering with Syria and other backers of Hezbollah, denounced the Lebanese guerrilla group's actions in provoking the latest conflict. (Full story)
In one sign the West expects a drawn-out battle, the U.S. Embassy said it was looking into ways to get Americans in Lebanon to Cyprus. France said it had already decided to send a ferry from Cyprus to evacuate thousands of its nationals, and the British government said it was making contingency plans to protect its citizens. (Full story)
In all, 33 people were killed in Lebanon on Saturday, police said. That raised the Lebanese death toll in the four-day Israeli offensive to 106, mostly civilians. On the Israeli side, at least 15 have been killed, four civilians and 11 soldiers.
Israeli warplanes demolished the last bridge on the main Beirut-Damascus highway — over the Litani River, six miles from the Syrian border — trying to complete their seal on Lebanon.
Four days into the Israeli offensive, Lebanese themselves remained divided over Hezbollah's operation: Some angry and terrified, others proud.
"No one has stood up to Israel the way the resistance (Hezbollah) has," said a 33-year-old housewife, Laila Remeiti, one of about 130 people who have taken refuge at a Beirut government school.
But the toll across the country was clear, with bridges, seaports, military coastal radars and Hezbollah offices all attacked in intensive air raids and sea bombardments Saturday:
— Fleeing refugees, including women and children, were cut down on a road adjacent to the Lebanese-Israeli border in an airstrike as they left the village of Marwaheen. The bodies of several children, one headless, were sprawled on the ground. Police said 15 were killed in the afternoon attack and an Associated Press photographer counted 12 bodies in the two cars.
— At least three civilians were killed when another Israeli airstrike hit a bridge near the Syrian border, cutting the last land link on the main road to Syria and its capital, Damascus.
— In the afternoon, Israeli forces hit central Beirut, striking the port and a lighthouse on a posh seafront boulevard, where people stroll in the evening or jog in the early mornings. It is a few hundred yards from the campus of the American University of Beirut. The seaport is adjacent to downtown Beirut, a disctrict rebuilt at a cost of billions of dollars after the 1975-1990 civil war.
— The brunt of the onslaught focused more and more on Hezbollah's top leadership in south Beirut and the eastern city of Baalbek. Ambulances raced to a Baalbak residential neighborhood where black smoke rose from airstrikes. Israel also targeted the headquarters compound of Hezbollah's leadership in a crowded Shiite neighborhood of south Beirut for the second straight day.
Hezbollah in turn struck out repeatedly at Israel. Its rockets hit Tiberias three times on Saturday, the first attack on the city — 22 miles from Lebanon — since the 1973 Mideast war. At least two houses were directly hit, but only a few light injuries were reported, medics said.
Residents were ordered into bomb shelters, and Israeli media reported that hundreds of tourists were fleeing the city. Police used megaphones to urge bathers at the Sea of Galilee to seek shelter.
On Israel's second front, against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, Israeli aircraft on Saturday struck the Economy Ministry of the Hamas-led Palestinian government and three other targets, killing two people, Palestinian and Israeli officials reported.
Early Sunday, Israeli tanks approached the town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, across the border from an Israeli town, Sderot, frequently hit by Hamas guerrilla rockets, residents and Palestinian security officials reported.
Palestinian hospital officials said seven people — three gunmen and four civilians, including a 4-year-old boy — were wounded in missile strikes in Beit Hanoun. A missile knocked out electricity in northern Gaza, residents said.
Israel attacked Gaza on June 28, three days after Hamas-backed militants killed two soldiers and captured a third at an army post just inside Israel.