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Mideast conflict worsens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAIFA, Israel -- Hezbollah militants launched a barrage of rockets at Israel's third-largest city yesterday, scoring a direct hit with a new, longer-range missile on a railway maintenance building filled with workers, killing eight people, wounding two dozen others and quickly bringing an Israeli counterattack.

Israeli warplanes carried out a round of airstrikes on southwestern Beirut, targeting Hezbollah headquarters, and on a Lebanese civil defense building in the southern port city of Tyre, killing about 45 people and wounding more than 100 others, according to wire service reports from southern Lebanon.

In its attack against Haifa, Hezbollah for the first time launched what Israeli officials said was an Iranian- designed Fajr-3, with a range of at least 25 miles and carrying a 100-pound warhead. It is a far deadlier, longer-range weapon than the smaller Katyusha rockets that Hezbollah has used until now.

With the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah entering its sixth day, killing at least 130 Lebanese and 24 Israelis, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave no indication that he was about to ease off the bombings.

"We must show patience and forbearance," Olmert said in a statement during yesterday's weekly Cabinet meeting. "This struggle is under no time constraints; this is a daily struggle and we -- the Israeli government and public -- will continue to show equanimity, determination and sagacity as necessary."

The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a taped message broadcast yesterday on the militant group's Al-Manar television station that his organization had "complete strength and power." He said that Hezbollah had "no choice" but to target Haifa after Israeli forces struck civilians in Lebanon and suggested that it would continue firing rockets into Israel.

"When the Zionists behave like there are no rules ... and no limits to the confrontation, it is our right to behave in the same way," said Nasrallah, speaking in his first address since a news conference last week announcing Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers.

Nasrallah has been on the run since last week. Israeli airstrikes again targeted his office and residence in a south Beirut suburb yesterday and briefly knocked Al-Manar TV off the air.

Early today, witnesses reported that waves of Israeli airstrikes hit the Lebanese city of Tripoli and Hezbollah strongholds in the eastern town of Baalbek. Barrages from gunboats killed four in a village south of Beirut.

Along with the Lebanon attacks, Israel attacked along the second front where it is fighting, in Gaza. Fighter jets bombed the Palestinian Foreign Ministry in Gaza City, and clouds of smoke rose from the building, which has been hit before, wire services reported. At least nine people in nearby houses were reported injured.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, the leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, including the United States, urged Hezbollah to release two captured Israeli soldiers, whose abduction last week ignited the fighting. The Group of Eight said Israel should then withdraw from the Gaza Strip and release Palestinian legislators who are members of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

In a statement, the Group of Eight focused its criticism on Hezbollah and seemed to allude to the militant group's support from Iran and Syria. "These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos," it said. It added, "We call upon Israel to exercise utmost restraint."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refrained from criticizing Israel, suggesting that it should be allowed to inflict more damage on Hezbollah. She also said she was considering making a trip to the region.

"A cessation of violence is crucial, but if that cessation of violence is hostage to Hezbollah's next decision to launch missiles into Israel or Hamas' next decision to abduct an Israeli citizen, then we will have gotten nowhere," Rice said on Fox News Sunday.

The attack against Haifa raised tensions even higher. Although military analysts were aware that Hezbollah had larger rockets, Hezbollah had been reluctant to use them, until yesterday. After a first volley of rockets aimed at Haifa, a little after 9 a.m., Israeli authorities put residents across the north and in Tel Aviv on heightened alert because of the new threat.

The missile that landed here tore a gaping hole in the ceiling of the railway maintenance building, exploding on the floor below, shattering the windows of railway cars, charring the walls and leaving behind a blood-stained floor of broken glass, severed light fixtures and other debris.

Yitzak Attias, a mechanic at the railway yard, was walking to join his coworkers in the workshop when the missile struck.

"First of all, I heard a noise, and then I saw a big ball of fire inside of the workshop," said Attias. The explosion threw off thousands of ball bearings, he added, reaching into his pocket and showing off the silvery bearings he picked up near the rocket strike.

Avi Kohen, a medic who has been responding to other Katyusha attacks in recent days, said he was immediately aware that this attack was the work of a larger rocket.

"It was a terrible scene. I've been to a lot of bombings before. This was worse," he said "It wasn't a Katyusha. The explosion was different. It was stronger. It was something I never seen before in my life."

Haifa, a busy industrial seaport with a population of 267,000, was eerily quiet as residents fled south or stayed indoors in safe rooms as more rockets fell in the city and its suburbs. Stores, factories and gas stations were closed for business. Few people walked the streets. Only a trickle of cars -- many of them ambulances and police cars -- traveled on the roads.

Sirens blared throughout the day, giving residents a one-minute warning to seek shelter from the next round of rockets. On the city's main highway, drivers leapt from their cars when they heard the warnings, jumping into ditches by the side of the road to protect themselves.

More than 1,400 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired into Israel since Wednesday, military officials said.

"The severe blows on Haifa follow the murderous attacks on population centers throughout the country," Olmert said during his Cabinet meeting, "These attacks are designed to hurt civilians because this is Hezbollah's criminal war against Israel and its residents."

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz declared a 48-hour emergency yesterday in northern Israel, the area most vulnerable to Hezbollah attacks. Under the order, only crucial factories and services -- such as food-related industries, transportation, banks and pharmacies -- will be open for business. Workers for other businesses will be allowed to take paid leave.

The conflict with Hezbollah has emptied hotels and attractions in northern Israel, including Christian sites near the Sea of Galilee, devastating the tourist industry during the height of the summer holiday season.

But while the rockets have made everyone fearful, Kohen, like many Israelis, said he was heartened by the display of unity among the often fractious Israeli population.

"We are going back to the days of the 1948 War of Independence. There's no left side or right side. Everybody is together supporting one another," he said.

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com

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