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Last Updated: Friday, 28 July 2006, 18:40 GMT 19:40 UK
Watching and waiting in Tyre
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Tyre

The Israeli bombardment of Lebanon is at its most unremitting in the hills around the spectacularly located southern Lebanese port of Tyre.

Smoke rises over hills south of Tyre
Israeli attacks have pummelled the villages around Tyre
From here you can clearly see Naqqoura Point - where Lebanon's coast meets Israel's - and an arc of mountainous border territory extending about 20-30km (12-18 miles) towards the east of this ancient Phoenician city.

Day and night, the thunderous roar of explosions from that area rattles doors and windows at the Tyre Rest House, where much of the Arab and international media are camped out.

Mushroom clouds and fireballs swirl up in the heat haze shrouding the hills that roll down to the Mediterranean.

Israel's powerful armoury is at work: 450kg (1,000lb) and 225kg aerial bombs, guided missiles, and 150mm ( 4.5 inch) artillery rounds fired singly from the south, or pumped by the dozen from warships lurking over the western horizon.

But for the most part, the centre of Tyre feels safe from this onslaught - although on Wednesday evening an ear-splitting double explosion shook the city to its foundations and sent people diving for cover.

Delayed response

Wednesday's air strike demolished an empty block of flats where a Hezbollah military leader used to live among the narrow alleys of the Dini neighbourhood. About 12 people were injured in neighbouring buildings, including three children under five.

The following day there was a fresh exodus of people fleeing the city - many of them had probably already fled villages in the hills a fortnight earlier to shelter in friends' and relatives' overcrowded apartments.

Tyre: City under attack

Only about a tenth of the population of Lebanon's fourth largest coastal city are thought to remain now - including many who are too poor or sick to contemplate the arduous journey north.

For its part, Israel's adversary, Hezbollah, fires daily salvoes of Katyusha rockets from Tyre, leaving undulating trails of white smoke from the citrus and banana groves beyond the city's southern outskirts.

This rocket fire - Israel's main reason for going to war, along with the capture by Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid on 12 July - has caused terror and emptied the streets of northern Israeli cities.

But Israel's military response around Tyre shows its fundamental weakness when dealing with a guerrilla army drawn from the indigenous population of southern Lebanon.

It can take up to 12 minutes for Israeli aircraft to come and drop their 1,000-pounders on the launch sites - plenty of time for the highly-mobile rocket crews to pack up and escape.

Eyes in the sky

Israeli leaders put great emphasis on the inherently indiscriminate violence of Hezbollah's unguided Katyusha rockets.

However - though they insist Israel's campaign is targeting Hezbollah staging areas and supply lines - the bombing has killed many more Lebanese civilians with its hi-tech weaponry than have died in Israel.

For people in Tyre the most terrifying noise is not the shelling a few kilometres away, but the whine of the all-seeing drones flying overhead, relaying potential targets back to Israel with pinpoint accuracy.

Medical officials say most of the casualties brought in have been civilians trying to flee their bombarded villages in the south who were then attacked on the roads.

In the villages themselves, injured people have been left to die because ambulance crews have been targets of bombing too. Two ambulances this week were hit within minutes of each other, one rocket hitting the Red Cross like a bullseye, witnesses said.

Suspected traffic

This "pinpoint randomness", as one observer called it, is what makes the roads in the south so terrifying.

Mother and child waiting for evacuation from Tyre
Thousands of refugees are streaming through the city

And if cars heading away are targeted, it is all the more likely that vehicles going south might be suspected by Israel as Hezbollah fighters heading towards the battlefront.

That is why very few journalists venture beyond the relative safety of the centre of Tyre to reach outlying villages, let alone getting anywhere near the areas where Hezbollah and Israeli forces are fighting fierce battles at close quarters.

So instead, the media makes do with gathering tales from the thousands of refugees who have been streaming north through Tyre.

It is not possible to check their stories, but a pattern emerges from what they say: the destruction of their villages, spending days trapped without provisions and a petrifying flight to safety.






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