6 Killed by Israeli Drone After Announcement of Expanded Offensive

Published August 11, 2006

| Associated Press

An Israeli drone fired at a convoy of refugees fleeing southern Lebanon on Friday night, killing at least six people and wounding 16, an Associated Press photographer said.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the incident.

Lutfallah Daher, the photographer, was with the convoy when it was hit near the Bekaa Valley town of Chtaura, about 30 miles north of the Litani River. Israel has said it would attack any vehicle on roads south of the Litani, assuming it was carrying Hezbollah weapons or fighters.

Daher said he counted six bodies that were taken to the morgue at the hospital in Jobb Jannine. There were reports of two more dead, but the photographer could not confirm those deaths.

The photographer said that when the convoy left the Israeli-occupied town of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon, it was made up of more than 600 civilian vehicles in addition to vehicles carrying 350 Lebanese soldiers and police. A few vehicles had left the convoy before it was hit, the photographer said.

Daher lives in Marjayoun and was fleeing with his wife in one car. His mother, brother, sister-in-law and their child were in another car. None was harmed.

Two armored U.N. peacekeeping vehicles were to have accompanied the convoy, Daher said, but were not present when Israeli forces in Marjayoun gave the convoy permission to head north. Israeli tanks and infantry took control of Marjayoun on Thursday.

Israel's military said no convoys had been coordinated with the army.

The region around Marjayoun, a mainly Christian town, was hit by Israeli warplanes and artillery during and after the Israeli advance.

The attack came after Israel announced its plans to launch an expanded ground offensive into southern Lebanon Friday after expressing dissatisfaction over an emerging cease-fire deal in the United Nations, government officials said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided on the massive new ground campaign after meeting for several hours, and Olmert's spokesman told The Associated Press it had begun.

A cease-fire deal being worked out by the U.N. Security Council failed to meet Israel's basic requirements, such as stationing robust international combat troops in southern Lebanon once Israel withdraws, said the spokesman, Asaf Shariv.

Israeli warplanes and artillery pounded Hezbollah positions throughout the day Friday in an attempt to gain unchallenged command of strategic high ground and disrupt guerrilla rocket attacks across the border.

CountryWatch: Israel | Lebanon | Syria | Iran

In far northern Lebanon, Israeli jets blasted a key bridge to Syria, killing at least 12 people, as the conflict for the first time touched the entire length of Lebanon — from skirmishes on the Israeli border in the south to the airstrike on the northern frontier about 105 miles away.

Hezbollah sent another barrage of more than 150 rockets toward northern Israel, it said. Israeli rescue workers said eight people in the port of Haifa were wounded by shrapnel, but they estimated the Hezbollah attack at about 80 missiles by midday.

The heaviest fighting continued around Marjayoun, an important hub just north of Israel's Galilee panhandle that juts into Lebanon. An Associated Press reporter briefly entered the embattled city and saw intense Israeli bombardment of dug-in Hezbollah fighters.

The city, which is mostly Christian, gives Israeli gunners a view of the Litani River valley and other areas used as launching grounds for Hezbollah rockets. Israeli tanks rolled into Marjayoun on Thursday after coming under withering Hezbollah ambushes along the way.

Hundreds of civilian vehicles joined a convoy escorted by U.N. peacekeepers leaving Marjayoun. The exodus — which was slowed by nearby Israeli shelling — included about 350 Lebanese soldiers and police who were in the city when Israeli forces poured in.

The mayor of Marjayoun, Fuad Hamra, told the AP by telephone from the convoy that he blames the Lebanese government for abandoning state institutions in the region. "As of tonight and in the coming days, Marjayoun will be a field for destruction," he said.

By taking Marjayoun, the Israeli army was closer to Beirut than at any time since the fighting began July 12 after a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three.

Powerful explosions resounded across Beirut. Local media reported Israeli warplanes hit Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Dahieh suburb.

Israel also struck an area close to the Lebanese border crossing at Masnaa in the Bekaa Valley, about 30 miles southeast of Beirut, but there were no reports of casualties. Masnaa is the main crossing into Syria, and the main escape route for hundreds of displaced Lebanese who fled the country over land.

In the propaganda war, Israeli planes dropped leaflets over parts of Beirut saying Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is "cheating" the Lebanese and hiding the number of losses among the militiamen. The paper included the names of about 90 fighters Israel said were killed.

Israel has imposed a virtual lockdown on traffic across southern Lebanon and key northern routes, seeking to cut off weapon and aid shipments to Hezbollah. The attack on the Abboudiyeh border crossing apparently reflected Israeli fears that Hezbollah was still being supplied via Syria — which is Hezbollah's main sponsor along with Iran.

At least 12 people were killed in the attack on the bridge, spanning the northern border, security officials said. That left the northern coastal road as the only official border crossing to Syria open for those trying to flee war-ravaged Lebanon.

At least two other Lebanese civilians were killed in attacks in other parts of the country, officials said.

At the same time, Israeli forces were still locked in relentless clashes with guerrillas along the southern border.

Hezbollah reported it killed or wounded 15 Israeli soldiers near the border village of Aita al-Shaab. It also said Israeli forces suffered casualties near the southern village of Rachaf. Israel did not immediately release information on battlefield losses.

Hezbollah said four of its fighters had been killed, but did not say when or where.

The guerrilla group's Al-Manar TV said Hezbollah fighters hit an Israeli gunboat off Tyre in southern Lebanon, killing or wounding 12 sailors. The Israeli military denied the claim.

More than 800 people in Lebanon and Israel have died since fighting erupted — 732 on the Lebanese side and 122 on the Israeli side.

In other developments:

• Poll results in Israel showed people growing more pessimistic about the military action. A survey in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper showed 37 percent of the 500 people questioned believed Israel would cripple Hezbollah, compared with 40 percent in a previous survey. Seventeen percent thought Israel would lose the war and Hezbollah would return to south Lebanon, up from 13 percent earlier. The poll conducted by the Dahaf organization also showed Olmert's approval rating fell to 66 percent from 73 percent. It had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

• The spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ronald Huguenin, said Israel refused to let a Greek ship carrying humanitarian aid and food dock in either Tyre or Sidon.

• In Geneva, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, told a special session on Lebanon that rights violations on both sides must be investigated.

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