Lebanese civilians pay price of Israeli offensive

TYRE, Lebanon, April 25 (Reuter) - They follow the familiar, deadly pattern: two Israeli helicopter gunships cover offshore to observe while an F16 bomber, releasing heat balloons to deflect any missiles, dives to attack.

But instead of bombs, these raids hit Lebanon's main southern city of Tyre only with sonic booms that deafen like exploding shells and shatter windows.

``Such crude tactics,'' an officer with the U.N peacekeeping force said with contempt during one mock raid as screaming errupted among refugees sheltered at the Tyre U.N. base. ``It's just to frighten the people.''

It is far from the only evidence the men of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) -- a frustrated 18-year-old mission to bring peace to south Lebanon -- cite when they accuse Israel of waging war against civilians.

As Israel's offensive against Hizbollah's guerrillas who are launching Katyusha rockets into northern Israel entered its third week, UNIFIL's efforts to help the innocent victims face increasing obstacles.

``There are lots of villages up there we have not even been to which need our help and we can't get into because of shelling,'' UNIFIL spokesman Mikel Lindvall said.

While some 400,000 Lebanese have heeded Israel's warning to flee the rugged border region, thousands more -- often the oldest and poorest -- remain trapped.

Israel's forces, watching continually from the sky, threaten to attack any private vehicle moving in the region, leaving those trapped dependent on the limited aid brought by UNIFIL.

But it is not safe for UNIFIL either. The peacekeepers say Israeli forces now drop shells or bombs close to 60 or 70 percent of all aid convoys in a deliberate effort to prevent them reaching villages.

The tactic of isolating the villages, which UNIFIL says has taken firm hold in recent days, includes aerial bombing of roads and in one case severing a pipe bringing water to up to 6,000


A U.N. convoy reached the village of Qleileh on Wednesday despite rubble blocking the road. It had been largely destroyed by Israeli shelling.

UNIFIL soldiers, alerted that the village had casualties, eventually found six people huddled in a building.

As soldiers helped the six shell-shocked villagers including two wounded in an attack a week earlier, Israeli planes struck alongside the U.N. convoy.

``It's disgusting,'' a UNIFIL officer said of the tactics, certain that civilians rather than Iranian-backed Hizbollah guerrillas were the chief targets hit by Israel's onslaught.

For the Lebanese, it is hardly their first such experience. Israel in 1993 also deliberately depopulated the region, openly saying it was using refugees to put pressure on the Lebanese government to control Hizbollah, the militant Islamic group fighting Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.

The world's politicians have shown even less urgency this time to end the bloodshed. Israel says its attacks can continue indefinitely, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher took more than a week to come to the region and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad refused a Tuesday meeting with the American envoy because he was too busy.

That is prolonging and deepening the suffering of the people of south Lebanon. Some who lasted the first two weeks of the offensive are now appealing for U.N. evacuation, itself an increasingly risky operation.

Even the dead cannot be cared for. A mass grave of 15 rows, each to take seven bodies, has been dug beside the U.N. post at Qana where Israeli shelling a week ago slaughtered more than 100 civilians seeking shelter.

The actual funeral cannot take place until there is a ceasefire.

Down the hill at the Jabal Amel hospital, four-year-old Hadil Abed al-Wadoud is among the survivors of the Qana attack. She has shrapnel in her lung and in her broken hand.

``My father is a barber, my mother just cooks,'' said the dark-eyed girl. ``Neither came to visit, probably they are busy.'' She does not know that her mother, her father and her sister remain in serious condition in another hospital. Her second sister was killed.