Carnage on the Road to Syria From Beirut

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The New York Sun

ZAHLEH, Lebanon — On a twisting mountain road in eastern Lebanon, little remained of the truck that had tried to pass through earlier: The fuel tank was enveloped in greasy orange flames, the undercarriage had melted into something that resembled crusty wrought iron, and the cargo — white sacks of sugar and rice bound for Beirut — burned angrily despite high-pressure hoses trained on the wreckage by volunteer firemen.

The blazing truck was surrounded by the wreckage of two other 10-wheelers, a pair of sedans, and a four-wheel-drive taxi from Jordan.All were destroyed by Israeli warplanes that swooped down at midday yesterday on a road that has become a lifeline for Lebanese fleeing to Syria for safety, and for truckers trying to bring needed supplies into besieged Lebanese towns.

Smoke from the burning fuel and foodstuff rose in a black funnel, partly obscuring a statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus that overlooks this village renowned for its Christian faith. The haze also darkened a nearby sign reading “Friendship Village” and pointing to a hilltop center where in better times people gather to celebrate fellowship. It drifted down the mountainside toward the Bekaa Valley, a Shiite Muslim stronghold where Hezbollah, Israel’s declared enemy, maintains bases and supply depots.

But here on this crest where the wreckage still smoked several hours later, there was no sign of any military target and no indication the trucks were carrying anything but food bound for Beirut. The pair of smashed cars looked like ordinary family four-doors. The taxi, a white vehicle with company insignia splashed on the doors, was one of the many that normally transport people among Beirut, Damascus, and Amman every day.

An Israeli military spokesman said aircraft hit four trucks on a highway in Lebanon carrying weapons for Hezbollah that originated in Beirut. Told the trucks appeared to be carrying food, the spokesman said, “We attack only terror targets that relate to Hezbollah and their terror infrastructure.”

The vehicles’ drivers and passengers were taken to a nearby facility for medical care; there was no word on how many were killed or injured. Nearby residents, meanwhile, splashed dirt on the roadway to prevent passing cars from skidding on the spilled diesel fuel. Just down the slope, Zahleh villagers leaned out of their shops to shout warnings at passing cars. “They are attacking!” they cried, before turning back to their business. “The road is closed!”

Since the latest round of conflict erupted last Wednesday with a Hezbollah raid into northern Israel, civilians have constituted the overwhelming majority of the casualties, according to authorities in Beirut. More than 220 Lebanese have been killed, they say, and all but about 25 were civilians. Only half a dozen belonged to Hezbollah, according to government and Hezbollah officials.

Civilian targets also have borne the brunt of destruction to Lebanon’s infrastructure. About 40 bridges and as many roads have been rendered useless by airstrikes and ship-to-shore shelling, including damage to the main Damascus-to-Beirut highway that makes the roundabout trip through Zahleh necessary. The Israeli military has attacked runways and fuel depots at Beirut International Airport, forcing its closure. The main ports, at Beirut and Tripoli, have been attacked as well, along with fuel tanks for electricity generating plants.

Thousands of Lebanese have poured out of the country into Syria, jamming hotels in Damascus, and on to Amman, the Jordanian capital. Hundreds of cars backed up yesterday at the border crossing. Families packed into cars waited in the heat for clearance from customs and immigration officials. One man drove a sedan with no doors. Another played with his iPod in a shiny black Audi, keeping the motor turning for air conditioning.

“Maybe Hezbollah has a problem [with Israel],”Ahmed Joumaa, who was headed for calm in Syria in his small pickup truck, said. “But I don’t have a problem. So why am I suffering? You must do something to help my country.”

Mr. Joumaa was stuffed with his brother and sister in the cab. Several children and other relatives, including an elderly woman clad in traditional black robes, sat in the back, exposed to the sun. The woman, seeing a foreigner beside the vehicle, called out,” You want to come with me? Come on up here. I’ll take you where you want to go.”

On the radio, meanwhile, came the news that five members of a family were killed when an Israeli warplane hit a home in Aitaroun, in craggy tobacco fields near the Israeli border.

Israeli airstrikes also targeted a Lebanese army barracks yesterday near Beirut, killing 11 soldiers and wounding 35, according to an announcement from the Lebanese military.A missile on Monday had slammed into a barracks near Tripoli, 40 miles north of Beirut, and killed nine soldiers, the military reported.

With Israeli leaders calling on the Lebanese military to assume control over the southern hills where Hezbollah now holds sway, the attacks seemed difficult to understand. Some Lebanese have speculated that Israel believes elements of the army are unofficially cooperating with Hezbollah.

Israel has publicly said it is not targeting the Lebanese soldiers. Yesterday, a military spokeswoman, Captain Noa Meir, said Lebanese troops are sometimes casualties because Hezbollah operates in nearby areas.

“This a combat zone of fierce fighting and unfortunately things like this happen,” she said.”We really are doing everything to keep civilians and the Lebanese military out of harm’s way.”

In the current confrontation, Hezbollah also has directed its attacks against civilian targets, sending missiles down on Nahariya, Haifa, and other northern towns. Given the disparity in weaponry, the toll has been significantly smaller. Of the 25 Israelis killed in the current round of fighting, 13 were civilians, including one person killed yesterday by a missile that set an apartment building afire in Nahariya.

The Israeli toll could rise, however, if the conflict endures and both sides continue what seems to be a test of resolve, including willingness to inflict civilian casualties. Israeli officials announced they had destroyed an Iranian-made Hezbollah missile on Monday that had a range of up to 80 miles, bringing the major city of Tel Aviv within range. It is not known how many of the missiles Hezbollah has in its arsenal, but the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has promised more “surprises” if Israeli attacks continue in Lebanon.

The New York Sun

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