Thursday Jul 20 17:48 AEST
Israeli warplanes pounded Lebanon and its soldiers clashed with Hizbollah guerrillas along the border as US Marines landed on a Beirut beach to rescue 1,200 Americans trapped by the fighting.
Frightened civilians in Lebanon feared the bombing would get worse once the evacuation of thousands of foreign nationals is completed.
Dozens of aircraft dropped 23 tonnes of explosives on a building in Beirut’s southern suburbs where the army said it suspected senior Hizbollah leaders were holed up.
The Israeli army said its soldiers were fighting Hizbollah guerrillas at two places along the border.
Hizbollah said it was clashing with Israeli forces near the border.
Israeli private television station Channel Ten reported that two soldiers were wounded in an exchange of fire in the same border area where two soldiers had been killed in fighting on Wednesday.
Hizbollah rockets killed two children in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, medics said. More rockets fell on the city of Haifa and one hit an empty seafront restaurant.
And despite international concern, there was no sign Israel or its Lebanese Shi’ite foes were ready to heed the Beirut government’s pleas for an immediate halt to a war that has killed at least 299 people in Lebanon and 29 in Israel.
“I have a very bad feeling that after the foreigners flee the bombings will get worse,” said 37-year old Ziad Nayef, a costume designer. “Nobody cares about Arab lives.”
Apart from the southern suburbs, Israel has already hit Beirut’s port and a lighthouse on its seafront. It also targeted two trucks with well-drilling gear in the Christian district of Ashrafiya but caused no injuries.
About 1,100 American evacuees who left Beirut by sea and air reached Cyprus overnight, the largest group of US citizens to have been rescued from Lebanon in a single day.
US Marines landed near Beirut to help evacuate more Americans, returning to a city where 241 Marines and other US service personnel were killed in 1983 by a Hizbollah truck bomb.
France said about 8,000 of its 17,000 citizens resident in Lebanon had asked to be evacuated. Germany sent at least 500 citizens by bus to Syria.
The Israeli Maariv newspaper’s NRG Web site quoted a senior military source as saying that Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was believed to be in the southern Beirut bunker during the air strike.
But Hizbollah said the Israeli statements showed “the enemy was trying to cover its military and security failures with lies and claims of fictitious achievements”.
Another loud explosion was heard across Beirut just after sunrise and television footage showed clouds of smoke billowing from the Shi’ite-Muslim dominated suburbs. Previous Israeli raids had flattened Hizbollah’s headquarters in the area.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said more than 500,000 people had been displaced and appealed for international help.
“I call on you to respond immediately and without reservation to our call for a ceasefire and to provide urgent international humanitarian aid,” he said in a televised address.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the bombardment would last “as long as necessary” to free the two soldiers captured by Hizbollah and ensure its militants are disarmed.
Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, wants to swap the two soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinians in Israeli jails.
The scale of the bombardment prompted many Lebanese, while still blaming Hizbollah for triggering the conflict, to shift their anger to the Jewish state’s “excessive use of force”.
“They are not just hitting Hizbollah, aren’t they?” said 58-year old Ali Essa, a Sunni Muslim who closed his supermarket in Ashrafiya and fled to western Beirut.
“They are targeting civilians and factories and the world is watching. The American government is the biggest criminal in the world for allowing them to strike us with US-made weapons.”