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Beirut residents believe anyplace might be bombed

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Israel claimed Wednesday that it had wiped out half of Hezbollah's arsenal, but many of the targets Israeli warplanes have hit in their week-long bombardment of the Lebanese capital have no obvious military value.

Among them: a tissue factory, a dairy, and a pair of construction vehicles.

Those targets offer few clues about how much success Israel has had in crippling the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is holding two captured Israeli soldiers and firing rockets into Israel.

But traveling the streets of Beirut leaves one clear impression: Lebanese believe that not a single inch of their country is beyond the whir of Israeli warplanes, the hiss of a falling bomb or the devastating explosion when one hits.

Fear has left the once-bustling capital deserted and shuttered, its few remaining residents bracing for the next boom.

"They're hitting everything, not just Hezbollah," wailed Leila Chahrour, 30, whose home was destroyed, forcing her family to live with 15 other people in a cramped motel room. "It's like this: If you are Lebanese, Israel will kill you."

Israeli officials may believe that their air war will turn more Lebanese against Hezbollah, which started the latest outburst of violence by kidnapping the Israeli soldiers. But the strikes run the risk of generating sympathy for Hezbollah among Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims.

Israeli officials have insisted that they're only targeting Hezbollah operations. But civilians have borne the brunt of the strikes, and more than 300 Lebanese have been killed since the bombing campaign began last week. At least 55 Lebanese died on Wednesday, the highest daily toll so far, said Sami Haddad, Lebanon's minister of economy and trade. Another 500,000 have been forced from their homes.

Haddad told reporters in Beirut that Israel had demolished 40 bridges, four factories, numerous storage facilities, airport runways and other infrastructure. There are six-hour electricity blackouts; food and water are growing scarce. Dollar notes have become a rarity and banks are limiting cash withdrawals.

The summer tourism that pumps billions of dollars into Lebanon's economy has dried up, Haddad said, with foreign embassies undertaking massive evacuation efforts.

By midweek, Haddad added, the estimated cost just to repair buildings and bridges was $500 million, and "this number is increasing by the minute." When asked about Israel's claim that it had halved Hezbollah's capabilities, made by Israeli Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman in an interview with Israeli Army Radio, the minister grew angry.

"I see just barbaric attacks," Haddad said. "These attacks have no military value whatsoever."

The worst fighting Wednesday occurred deep in Lebanon's southern Shiite heartland, where an Israeli missile strike killed five people, air raids flattened 15 homes and another strike hit a Hezbollah-affiliated social institution, according to Lebanese news reports.

The intended targets appeared to be Hezbollah-allied offices and neighborhoods where the group enjoys strong support. Television reports, however, showed rescue workers digging out bloodied civilians—not Hezbollah fighters—from the wreckage.

Few bridges remain in the country, and residents who cross them do so at high speed and with knotted stomachs. The same goes for tunnels, overpasses, just about any major infrastructure.

Along Beirut's glittering boardwalk upscale cafes, private beaches and American fast-food joints such as Hardees and KFC are closed. A lighthouse that was a Beirut landmark was missing a chunk of its tower from an air strike earlier this week. Only a handful of families watched the sun dip into the Mediterranean horizon, though the sidewalks are typically packed this time of year.

A reporter traveled several blocks without seeing a single resident when an elderly woman suddenly appeared, walking her dog.

In a week, Beirut residents have adjusted to the strange rhythms of their latest war. They know to rise early and run errands before the midday air strikes. Then they expect a lull until night falls, when the roar of Israeli jets once again fills the sky. They steer clear of Shiite Muslim strongholds, which Israel is punishing for their implicit support of Hezbollah.

The wartime rhythm was interrupted Wednesday by an unusual attack in the Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh, far from any known Hezbollah position. An Israeli strike took out a pair of trucks mounted with what appeared to be drills used to dig wells. No one was killed in the strike.

At sundown, locals arrived to gawk at the charred shells of the trucks, but no one could figure out what threat two vehicles in a back lot posed. Israel's precision with weapons is well known here, so few were willing to believe that the trucks' drills had been mistaken for rocket launchers.

A more sinister notion emerged—that Israel deliberately struck a Christian neighborhood to cause a backlash against Hezbollah and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Two friends who arrived on a motorbike to survey the damage snapped photos of the burned trucks with their cell phone cameras and tried in vain to figure out why the trucks had been attacked.

Charbel Oueiss, 24, is Christian and has reservations about Hezbollah. On the same bike was a pro-Hezbollah Muslim friend who declined to give his name.

"We live in Achrafieh, so why? This is Christian country," Oueiss said. "Maybe it's because two weeks ago, Hassan Nasrallah was on TV and said . . ."

His friend interrupted: "Don't you say anything about Nasrallah. My love is Hassan Nasrallah."

Oueiss started to answer, but his friend cut him off again. "Criticize him and I'll fire a Katyusha rocket at you!"

The friends laughed, climbed back on their motorbike and left for home.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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