With Israel intensifying its squeeze on southern Lebanon, tens of thousands of Lebanese are scrambling to leave the border region, navigating past the huge craters and burned vehicles littering the roads in an effort to reach safety. A snaking line of cars, white sheets fluttering from their windows and antennas, wound its way northward, following back roads and side streets because the highways have been bombed.

More than 35,000 people have poured into Sidon, south of Beruit, in recent days, and others are heading for the mountains above Beirut, swelling the populations of towns and villages there. Altogether, more than 500,000 people have been displaced since the start of the 11-day-old conflict, according to the U.N.

For Mohammed al-Dib, 42, who paid $200 for a taxi to take him, his wife and three children to Sidon from Bazouriyeh, east of Tyre, it was a trip from hell.

“Till now I do not believe I am here. All along the way there are destroyed cars and people burned in their cars. I saw half a body of a woman being eaten by dogs,” he said as he reached Sidon.

“Some people would prefer to die one time in their village and not many times coming here on the road, because every 1 or 2 kilometers you hear the planes and bombs, and it was hell.”

Sidon, a pretty fishing town popular with tourists, has not been left untouched. Air strikes have destroyed several gas stations and the looping overpasses connecting the town to the main north-south highway. The port was struck, and so was the Funny World amusement park. Many Sidon residents also have fled elsewhere, leaving the streets virtually deserted.

But as the focus of the conflict narrows on the strip of southern Lebanon from which Hezbollah has been launching attacks, it is the towns and villages there, home to an estimated 400,000 people, that are bearing the brunt of the attacks.

Israel’s goal is to empty the border region, said al-Dib, who believes 90 percent of the people in his village have fled. Several apartment buildings housing civilians have been hit, and “tens of people” are still buried in the rubble, he said.

The Balhas family had not expected that their village would be targeted because, they said, it is not a Hezbollah stronghold. “If I had seen Hezbollah soldiers I would have run away immediately,” Balhas said. “But there are no Hezbollah soldiers, so I thought it would be safe.”

Shortly after reaching Sidon, he called neighbors and learned that his home had received a direct hit, an hour and a half after the family fled. His father-in-law, who had refused to travel with them because he wanted to tend his chickens, had been taken to hospital in Tyre with shrapnel injuries.

“He wouldn’t come because of the chickens,” said Balhas. “Now the chickens are dead, and he is in the hospital.”

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): mideast-lebanon

AP-NY-07-22-06 1940EDT

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