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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 August 2006, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
Hezbollah is unbowed in Baalbek
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Baalbek

Though Israel says it is temporarily suspending air strikes against Lebanon to investigate the latest Qana tragedy, its drones scarcely stopped buzzing like sinister insects high over Baalbek throughout Monday.

Baalbek - home to perhaps the most impressive ancient Roman ruins outside Italy - is now very much Hezbollah country.

A lone man in a wheelchair on a Baalbek street
The historic streets of Baalbek are mainly empty of traffic

As a result, the area has been heavily bombed by Israel in the last three weeks, though it lies more than 100km (60 miles) from Israel's northern border and poses no threat as a rocket launching area.

On the way into Baalbek, you see portraits of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah flanked by his mentors, Ayatollahs Khomenei and Khamenei, supreme leaders of the Iranian revolution.

You also pass a succession of bombed petrol stations and industrial workshops - all buildings with civilian rather than military use, local people say.

Ten-metre craters suggest huge Israeli laser-guide bombs were dropped on the targets.

But today, it is much smaller, though still deadly, missiles fired by the drones that occupy the minds of Baalbek residents - and their visitors from the BBC.

Deadly drone

Faisal Sahili said his family had a lucky escape when their house in the Sheikh Habib neighbourhood was destroyed by Israeli bombing on the third day of the conflict.

"The aircraft started bombing our area and so we ran out into the fields, which is the safest place," the retired Lebanese army officer said.

Faisal Sahili
Faisal Sahili was attacked as he tried to return to his home

Moments later, the house was flattened. The reason behind the attack is not clear, although local journalists say 12 houses were bombed in that area.

Most houses were empty, their inhabitants having fled Baalbek for safer villages nearby - but three people died, all civilians.

In all, more than 250 properties are reported to have been hit by Israeli air strikes in the Baalbek area, many of them with no apparent connection with Hezbollah.

However, it is too dangerous to verify this figure, as some areas are still being attacked.

"Yesterday, I thought I'd go back to see if I could recover any belongings or clothes from my home, but a drone was flying overhead and it fired a missile at my car," Mr Sahili said.

"Luckily it missed, so I hid until the drone went away, and then I got in my car and drove away as quickly as possible."

Miracle escape

Ali Taher says he finds it hard to believe he is still alive, and looking at the huge pile of concrete and twisted metal opposite his house in the centre of Baalbek, it is difficult not to feel the same.

Ali Taher
Ali Taher has barely slept since the bombing last week

The buildings opposite, said to have been a welfare distribution point and a school, were bombed to rubble a week ago while Mr Taher was standing outside his front door.

His 10-seater minivan, whose wreck is still parked at the same spot, bore the force of the blast and the flying debris, and Mr Taher emerged with barely a scratch.

"You could say I'm living just because of a lack of death!" he says, using a sardonic old Lebanese axiom.

He hands me the biggest piece of shrapnel I've seen since I got here, about 25cm (10 inches) long and weighing at least 3kg (6lb).

"We found this on my son's bed. Fortunately I sent them to Zahle (a mainly Christian town further down the Baqaa) on the first day of the attacks," he says.

He claims to have complete equanimity now about whether he lives or dies in another attack - though his eyes dart around nervously and he admits hardly sleeping since the bombing.

Persistent whine

"It is not safe here. We have to leave, now," said Hikmat Shreif, local correspondent for an international news agency, moments after he had taken us to another bombed area, in a residential district in northern Baalbek.

Volvo cars driven by Hezbollah on the streets
Hezbollah men patrol the streets in old Volvo estates

In front of us were two large impact craters that had completely destroyed two buildings where Hezbollah had rented rooms for its activities.

And in the sky overhead, there was the persistent whining of another Israeli drone. When a veteran like Hikmat says it is time to go, you take it very seriously.

Our little media convoy sped back through the narrow streets to the relative safety of the centre of town.

There, the streets were quiet and almost all of the shops were shut. Ever present though - patrolling the streets in a fleet of old Volvo estate cars - were Hezbollah's local cadres.

They - along with the civilians left in the town - may have taken a pummelling in Baalbek, but they are still very much in charge.

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