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South Beirut Suffers Under Israeli Barrage


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Israel's air assault against Lebanon has been going on for a week now. And today, some two dozen people were killed as Israeli warplanes pounded a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut. So far, more than 200 Lebanese have been killed since Israel began its bombing campaign in an effort to free two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah militants. The battle between Israel and Hezbollah has forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of foreigners and Lebanese from the country. In a moment, we'll hear about those fleeing Lebanon.

But first, we go to NPR's Ivan Watson in Beirut. Hello.

IVAN WATSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, seven days of air strikes. How much damage are you seeing?

WATSON: Well, southern Beirut has been burning for the past several days. Israel has been focusing its bombardment on that area, as well as the rest of the country in southern Lebanon, but that has been the focus of the attacks. The morning has been quiet here, but around two in the morning, there were - local time - there was a half dozen terrifying explosions emanating from that area.

We drove through some of these neighborhoods today. I saw shattered glass, buildings that had been flattened, bridges and overpasses that had been collapsed. While driving through this area, which Israel has been targeting because it is considered a Hezbollah stronghold, we saw a Hezbollah fighter carrying a machine gun on one street. And after about half hour there, I was pulled over by Hezbollah intelligence agents with radios, who checked my documents and then told me to leave the area. So there's no question that it is a Hezbollah stronghold, but it is also a densely populated residential area.

MONTAGNE: And what has all this meant for those people in south Beirut?

WATSON: Well, many have left the area and are sleeping in - on the floor of schools, and mosques, and churches, and in parks, here. But many have not been able to leave. I saw many civilians there - families, children - who say they can't afford to move to hotels. They have invalids or babies. They don't want to leave their apartments; they're afraid.

And I actually came across an American family from Detroit, who is staying in one of the apartments, just blocks from areas that have been targeted, repeatedly, by Israeli air strikes. They're terrified. They're staying with Lebanese relatives there, and they don't know how to get out of the country.

MONTAGNE: And those fleeing the country - who are managing to do it, getting out in all kinds of ways - how are they getting out? And how many of them are there, if you have any idea?

WATSON: It's not actually all kinds of ways, because there is a land, sea, and air blockade. You can't really fly out through the commercial airport, which was bombed. The most people have fled, in the first days of this bombing campaign, by road to neighboring Syria. But you have a lot of, especially Americans, who are concerned about going to Syria because of tense relations between the U.S. and Syria - people who are afraid that they could be attacked by Israeli aircraft on the long drive to the Syrian border, since the highway there has been repeatedly bombed.

The first ship yesterday, chartered by European governments, began taking away European passport holders, several hundred of them. An Italian ship, a French- chartered ship - a Swedish ship is expected to arrive today. They've gotten guarantees from the Israeli government that those ships will not be attacked. The U.S. is working on beginning its own massive evacuation of tens of thousands of American citizens from here. And there have been helicopters taking out emergency cases--from the British embassy here, from the American embassy here.

MONTAGNE: Given this bombing campaign - I mean, it sounds dangerous. How dangerous is it?

WATSON: It is. Well, eight Canadians were killed in the south of Lebanon last weekend. The death toll for Lebanese is more than 200. And people stay off the streets in the afternoon for fear of Israeli air strikes.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thank you very much. NPR's Ivan Watson, speaking to us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.