BAALBEK, Lebanon – Residents of the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek woke to scenes of death and destruction Wednesday after a night of massive airstrikes and an Israeli commando raid on a Hezbollah-run hospital that killed at least 15 civilians.
It was the deepest into Lebanon Israeli troops reached since fighting broke out between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas on July 12.
As many as 50 people from the village of Al Jamaliyeh carried pictures of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah during a small procession through the hamlet. It lies about half mile from the hospital where Israeli troops were put down by helicopter. It was hit by Israeli airstrikes overnight.
Bodies of the dead were hastily shrouded in white cloth and carried to the graveyard in the bucket of a back hoe.
The town's mayor, Hussein Jamaleddin, lost his son, brother and five other relatives. He broke down crying hysterically, and pulled at the limbs of the dead hanging out of the shovel.
"This is the leg of my son. He was a sportsman, he did tai kwan do," Jamaleddin wailed.
Witnesses said the Dar Al-Hikma hospital was partially destroyed in overnight fighting, but an AP photographer at the scene said the building appeared intact. The entrance was riddled with bullet holes and the door appeared to have been broken down. Guards prevented reporters from entering.
Two gutted cars were parked outside the three-story building, and a minivan with shattered windows sat nearby, riddled with shrapnel and bullet holes.
A sign draped across the building's top floor read, "Dar Al-Hikma, Imam Khomeini's Charity Organization." Residents said the hospital was financed by an Iranian charity with close ties to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah guerrillas, armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, fought Israeli troops at the hospital late Tuesday, Hezbollah's chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, said early Wednesday.
The building was empty at the time, having been evacuated days earlier when Israelis attempted a similar landing, another Hezbollah spokesman said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements to the media.
"It was evacuated and emptied of all staff and patients because of worries about their security," he said Wednesday.
The spokesman said Israeli troops captured "four or five" people from Baalbek, but not at the hospital. He said the prisoners were civilians rather than Hezbollah fighters. One was a 60-year-old grocery store owner, and two others, the grocer's relatives, work in construction, the spokesman said.
Israeli officials have said the captured five guerrillas and killed at least 10, but suffered no casualties themselves.
Airstrikes on villages within a kilometer of the hospital killed at least 15 people, including a family of seven — a mother, father and their five children — in an area near Al Jamaliyeh, witnesses said. A van driver was also killed when another missile struck nearby.
Outside the family's house, at least two rockets lay on the ground, unexploded. Neighbors said the family had been sitting outside under a tree when they were hit.
"I saw everything. They were sitting outside when the rockets fell. They stopped staying at home after they saw what happened in Qana," one neighbor said, referring to an Israeli airstrike in southern Lebanon that killed up to 60 civilians on Sunday.