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Foreigners Flee Lebanon Amid Continued Fighting


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


And I'm Renee Montagne. Israeli warplanes are back in action over Lebanon for the sixth consecutive day, hitting a Hezbollah stronghold and bombing Beirut's airport yet again. Hezbollah responded by sending rockets deep into Israel. This follows yesterday's barrage on Haifa that left eight Israelis dead. At least 17 people were killed in Lebanon today.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

In the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanese television showed rescue workers and soldiers struggling to pull an injured man from the rubble of a Lebanese Army base, which was bombed over night.

To the east, on the border with Syria, crowds of people milled around the immigration office. They are part of the exodus of tens of thousands of foreigners who have taken matters into their own hands and left the country by road.

Abdul Lazeez(ph) is a tourist from Saudi Arabia who came to Beirut to accompany his brother, who was enrolling at the American University here.

Mr. ABDUL LAZEEZ (Tourist): I have came here for tourism, sightseeing and stuff, (unintelligible), people blowing up. Buildings came down. I don't know. And all the people started freaking out.

WATSON: Foreign governments are moving ahead with the evacuation of their citizens from the country. Britain and France have both sent ships to Lebanon. And yesterday, a team of Americans arrived on helicopter to prepare a possible U.S. evacuation plan. The logistical challenges will be daunting, though, since each of these countries has more than 10,000 citizens in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, in central Beirut yesterday, anxious families boarded a convoy of buses draped with Norwegian flags, about to make the trip to the Syrian border. Hama Yonstrat(ph) is taking her two children back to her husband in Norway. But she feels guilty about leaving her Lebanese parents behind.

Ms. HAMA YONSTRAT (Lebanese Evacuee): I think about my children. That's why I am going to leave. If it was just me, I would like to be with my family because I am going to be very worried about my family in Lebanon.

WATSON: The unofficial leader of this convoy, a Norwegian psychiatrist named Sven Staff(ph), relayed a reassuring message to the evacuees before they began their trip.

Mr. SVEN STAFF (Norwegian Psychiatrist): Important information from the embassy, Norwegian embassy in Tel Aviv. He said that the Israelis were - they are aware of our peace convoy, and they will not shoot on it.

WATSON: Staff said the bombing campaign has evoked similar reactions among residents of Beirut.

Mr. STAFF: Shock and denial and anger and this frustration - why does it happen now? We have had 40 years with war. And who is responsible for this? And why can't the superpowers do anything with this? We are innocent to this conflict. It's just put upon us.

WATSON: The gravity of the situation has sunk in in the Christian neighborhoods of north Beirut, which have so far not been bombed by Israeli warplanes. The streets here were almost completely empty yesterday, except for some Filipino construction workers piling into a taxi that would take them to the Syrian border.

An Armenian-Christian woman here named Agi Shadikyan(ph) says it all reminds her of the disastrous Lebanese civil war in the 1980s.

Ms. AGI SHADIKYAN: I am afraid of that. I feel so sad, and nothing makes me happy.

WATSON: Some Lebanese were determined not to let this war get in the way.

Unidentified Woman: Big party, yes.

WATSON: And what do you...

Unidentified Woman: I am doing dancing and eating and drinking.

WATSON: Members of this Christian family were dressed in suits and colorful gowns for a wedding that they refused to cancel.

Unidentified Man: We are not afraid.

WATSON: You feel safe?

Unidentified Man: Yes. And if we (unintelligible).

WATSON: One of the few businesses still working on Beirut's normally bustling Al-Hamra(ph) Street is the Chyko(ph) Restaurant. On Saturday, Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, called for an immediate cease fire. But restaurant manager Maazer Zawai(ph) says he has little hope in the prime minister's appeal.

Mr. MAAZER ZAWAI (Restaurant Manager): He cannot do nothing. He cannot push on Hezbollah or nothing. What has begun, we cannot stop it now.

WATSON: European and United Nations envoys traveled to Beirut yesterday to try to negotiate some way out of this crisis. But in a televised statement last night, the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, showed no signs of backing down.

Sheikh HASSAN NASRALLAH (Hezbollah Leader): (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: As long as the enemy acts without limitations, he said, it is our right to act similarly.

And Nasrallah issued a warning, that his militia has more surprises in store for Israel.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.