Israeli Airstrikes Hit Bridges, Gas Stations, Kill 18 Lebanese

Israeli warplanes pounded Hezbollah's south Beirut stronghold and roads around the country, killing at least 18 Lebanese as they fled the onslaught. Hezbollah expanded its rocket fire, hitting another of Israel's main cities, and Israel warned that the guerrillas could strike Tel Aviv.

Israel accused Iran of directly helping Hezbollah in the fighting, deepening worries over the regional impact of the battle. A senior Israeli intelligence official said 100 Iranian troops are in Lebanon and helped Hezbollah fire a missile that damaged an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast Friday night, killing one Israeli soldier and leaving three missing.

CountryWatch: Lebanon

Hezbollah denied the Israeli statement, saying "the Islamic resistance's Lebanese cadres were the ones who targeted the Zionist warship."

As the two sides punched at each other and civilian deaths mounted, diplomatic efforts to end the crisis had yet to get off the ground. Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo but fell into squabbling after moderate states, led by Saudi Arabia, denounced Hezbollah for starting the fight. (Full story)

France decided to send a ferry from Cyprus to evacuate thousands of its citizens from Lebanon, the first nation to do so in a sign the West expects a drawn-out battle. The United States has already told its nationals to consider leaving though has not ordered an evacuation.

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Police said a 106 people have been killed in Lebanon — most of them civilians — in the four-day Israeli offensive, sparked by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. On the Israeli side, at least 15 have been killed — four civilians and 11 soldiers.

The fight intensified along the deadly lines it has seen for four days. Israel targeted Lebanon's highways and airport to cut off the country from the outside world and at the same time hitting Hezbollah strongholds, usually in populated areas — such as the Hezbollah leader's home and office in south Beirut Friday night.

Hezbollah in turn was unleashing its rockets on northern Israel and was showing increasing sophistication. Five Hezbollah rockets hit Tiberias on Saturday, causing no injuries — the first rocket attack on the Israeli city, about 22 miles south of the border, since the 1973 Mideast War.

An Israeli intelligence official said Hezbollah has missiles with ranges of 60 to 120 miles that could reach Tel Aviv, Israel's largest metropolitan area. The Israeli officiials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

The Hezbollah strike on the Israeli warship off Beirut's coast Friday night was the guerrila's first direct Hezbollah hit on Israel's military since Wednesday's raid. Israel said the strike was carried out with an Iranian-made, radar-guided C-102.

Iran is one of Hezbollah's principle backers along with Syria, and many believe they are fueling the battle to show their strength in the region. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned Israel on Friday against retaliating against Syria and taunted that Iran itself could bot be hit — though both countries have denied direct involvement.

An Egyptian merchant ship carrying concrete to Syria was also hit by a Hezbollah rocket at about the same time, injuring a crewmember, Egyptian officials said.

At a G-8 summit in St. Petersburgh, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the worsening situation, but the two appeared divided on how to restore calm. (Full story)

Bush blamed Hezbollah and Syria for the escalating violence in the Middle East. "In my judgment, the best way to stop the violence is to understand why the violence occurred in the first place," Bush said. "And that's because Hezbollah has been launching rocket attacks out of Lebanon into Israel and because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers."

Putin said it was unacceptable to try to reach political goals through abductions and strikes against an independent state. "In this context we consider Israel's concerns to be justified," he said. At the same time, he said, "the use of force should be balanced."

In successive early morning raids that continued through the afternoon, Israeli warplanes pounded gas stations, fuel tanks and roads, destroying one bridge after another, splitting large parts of the country.

Fleeing refugees, including women and children, were cut down on a road adjacent to the Lebanese Israeli border in an apparent Israeli airstrike as they left the village of Marwaheen, which abuts the border.

Two vehicles burned down after taking a direct hit. Some bodies were blown into an adjacent ravine.

Police said 15 were killed in the afternoon attack. An Associated Press photographer counted 12 bodies in the two cars, hit on a road along the border fence about .6 mile from the village, but officials said several other bodies were blown into a nearby ravine.

"They're peaceful people who were displaced. They were just fleeing the shelling. They were hit on the road, in their cars," Abdel-Mohsen Hussein, the local mayor, told Al-Arabiya television.

At least three civilians were killed when another Israeli airstrike hit a bridge on the main highway linking Lebanon to Syria in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, security officials said.

Israel also targetd the headquarters compound of Hezbollah's leadership in a crowded Shiite neighborhood of south Beirut for the second straight day. Strikes Friday night hit the home and residence of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah inside the compound, though Nasrallah was not hurt.

Smoke billowed from the Haret Hreik neighborhood after four loud impacts reverberated in the latest hits. Witnesses said the planes were attacking the same compound, where Hezbollah's Shura Council political decision-making body is located. Black-clad Hezbollah fighters carrying assault rifles blocked journalists from the area and questioned civilians.

Other Hezbollah targets were hit. In the southern village of Kfar Sir, the empty house of a local guerrilla official was destroyed by a missile.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli army spokesman said Saturday that it attacked 44 Hezbollah targets in the past 24 hours, including the group's headquarters, its Al-Manar television's broadcasting offices and several bridges in Lebanon, including on the Beirut-Damascus road.

Residents of nearby buildings swept the glass, fixed blown out windows and doors. Motorists, particularly minivans carrying families fleeing from the south manevered its way through narrow side roads to bypass the blocked sections of the highway.

As the fighting continued unabated, Lebanon sought support from fellow Arabs at an emergency session of foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday. But sharp rifts erupted over as moderate Arab states denounced Hezbollah for starting the conflict.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called the guerrilla group's actions "unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible," telling his counterparts: "These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them."

Supporting his stance were representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, delegates said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Another camp led by Syria defended Hezbollah as carrying out "legitimate acts in line with international resolutions and the U.N. charter, as acts of resistance," delegates said.