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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 22:54 GMT 23:54 UK
'No refuge from the bombs'
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Sidon

The normally bustling Mediterranean city of Sidon is a little like a ghost town at the moment.

Refugees in Sidon
Sidon has drawn refugees from bombing elsewhere in Lebanon

The streets are virtually empty, an unusual sight in recent years since a modern coastal motorway linked Lebanon's third city to the capital Beirut, meaning there was little more than half-an-hour between the two.

But now it is more like three hours by car because of Israel's bombing of strategic points along the 30km (20 mile) route.

People wishing to make the journey have to take a tortuous route through the spectacular but barely passable Chouf mountains.

There is little concrete sign of the Israeli attacks along the way - just groups of cars, some of them flying white flags, packed with people fleeing the hardest-hit areas in the south.

Cardboard signs saying "To Beirut" have been erected by local people at junctions along the route to indicate safe passage from the war zone.

Full hotels

For those going to Sidon, like our team, there are no signs showing the route through the mountain passes and pot-holed roads.

Several times our driver has to ask the way and he turns around having taken a wrong turning.

Sidon is nevertheless reachable, and we come down through the foothills of the Lebanon range as the sun is beginning to set over the sea and to the north a thick cloud of smoke is rising from the Jiyeh power station, bombed by the Israelis last week.

Though the streets of Sidon may be virtually empty, the few hotels it boasts are absolutely full.

Many of the visitors have harrowing tales to tell of their experiences.

One man described how he sheltered in his home village of Zebqine for eight days as the Israelis bombed unremittingly around the village.

"The roads were cut off around Zebqine, but our houses are lightly built and there was no safe refuge from the bombing," said the man, who did not want to give his name.

Cluster bombs

Early on in the bombardment, which began on 12 July after the capture of two Israeli soldiers during a cross border raid by Hezbollah militants, a house in Zebqine was bombed by the Israelis killing 12 members of the same family, mostly children.

An Israeli fighter jet
The Israeli bombardment of Lebanon began on 12 July

"Can you imagine what the effect of this massacre was on a village of 1,500 people?" he asks.

He also says the Israelis have dropped dozens of cluster bombs around his village. This means when the people return after the bombing ends, their lives could still be endangered by unexploded bomblets as they harvest their wheat and tobacco crops.

"I want you to transmit this suffering and oppression to the world," he says.

"How does the world ignore the destruction and murder of innocent people by Israel - and even thinks Israel is the victim?" he adds.

Since there were no rooms at the inns of Sidon, I was forced to make an uncomfortable onward journey, along a heavily bombed road up into the hills above the city to stay with some friends.

The night air is filled with the thuds of air bombardment, which Israel says will continue until Hezbollah gives up its two captives and stops firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli population centres.

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