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Flight Begins from Lebanon; Violence Escalates

A truck crosses into Syria Monday. Foreigners and Lebanese residents are evacuating Lebanon to escape the dangers of Israeli attacks.
Salah Malkawi / Getty Images
Getty Images
A truck crosses into Syria Monday. Foreigners and Lebanese residents are evacuating Lebanon to escape the dangers of Israeli attacks.

Western nations rushed to evacuate thousands of their citizens from Lebanon as Hezbollah militants and Israel continued to pound each other for a sixth day.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset he would not stop the military barrage against Hezbollah until the militia group returned two kidnapped Israeli soldiers, and until the regular Lebanese army controlled all of the southern border area with Israel.

Olmert spoke as Israel's third-largest city, Haifa, was largely shut down by a continuous stream of Hezbollah missiles. Air-raid sirens warned residents of incoming rockets. A number of missiles hit the water, but one rocket partially collapsed a three-story apartment building, injuring three people.

In all, about two dozen Israelis have been killed in the violence, half of them civilians. Panic has swept to areas of Israel that have never felt under threat from Hezbollah before.

The Israeli military Monday said one of its airstrikes had destroyed a long-range Iranian-made missile that could have reached as far south as Tel Aviv.

In Lebanon, Israeli warplanes attacked targets along the coast, including two army posts in the north, continued to fire into Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut, and blasted the homes of members of the militant group in the eastern Bekaa valley. An Israeli army spokesman said some forces had briefly crossed into Lebanon to strike at Hezbollah targets. Dozens more people were killed in the strikes Monday, including 10 civilians who were driving over a bridge that was hit. The death toll in Lebanon now exceeds 200, most of them civilians.

Foreigners Rush to Leave

Several countries began evacuating their foreign nationals over the weekend, bringing them by bus overland into Syria, or by ferry to the island of Cyprus. Israel appeared to be loosening its sea blockade for evacuations. The United States carried out a few people from its embassy by helicopter Sunday, and has contracted a commercial cruise ship for a larger-scale operation. It's sending a Navy destroyer to escort it. A Pentagon spokesman said the cruise ship could carry 750 people; there are roughly 25,000 Americans in Lebanon.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were also on the move, seeking safety within the country, or trying to leave if they had foreign passports or visas. One man standing in line outside the French embassy lamented that "we will become like the Palestinians," a nation of refugees.

Diplomacy Begins

A State Department spokesman said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the region. French Prime Minister Domique de Villepin is already in Lebanon, and called for an immediate truce. U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have proposed that an international force be sent to Lebanon. But the United States was cool to the idea, and skeptics noted that a U.N. peacekeeping force already there for three decades has been powerless to stop periodic bouts of fighting.

President Bush was caught on audiotape in an unguarded conversation about the crisis with Blair at the G-8 Summit. He told the Prime Minister, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this (expletive) and it’s over."

Both Syria and Iran provide political and financial support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

Two Fronts for Israel

Meanwhile, Israel continued its four-week-old assault on the Gaza Strip, destroying the eight-story foreign ministry building, among other targets. The militant group Hamas controls the Palestinian government, and in the past has declared common cause with Hezbollah. Palestinian militants Monday attacked Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

Speaking before the Knesset, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert called both Hamas and Hezbollah "sub-contractors" for groups who oppose peace.

Olmert said that no less than Israel’s "national existence" is at stake. "We shall seek at every single site to destroy every infrastructure of terrorism."

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.