'We feel the world has left us to be slaughtered'
LEBANON last night warned it faced "real annihilation" by Israel who had dramatically escalated the violence of its campaign after Hezbollah rockets hit the city of Haifa.
"We are facing a real annihilation carried out by Israel," Information Minister Ghazi Aridi said after an emergency cabinet meeting.
"Israel is using internationally prohibited weapons against civilians," he said.
He did not elaborate on the weapons allegedly used. But Lebanese media reports said Israel had used phosphorus incendiary bombs and vacuum bombs, which suck up the air and collapse buildings. The reports were not confirmed.
Large swaths of Beirut were covered in fine white dust from the barrage. Around the Hezbollah compound in the southern district - known as Dahiyah - entire blocks were littered with heaps of rubble and twisted metal, as fires raged.
"We feel the entire world has left us alone to be slaughtered," said Ali al-Amin, a 40-year-old civil engineer who has stayed in his nearby home with his sister and mother because they have nowhere else to go. Many families have already fled.
One building collapsed on its side like a sandwich, and other apartment buildings were reduced to rubble or had their upper floors collapsed into those below. The steel gates of the Hezbollah compound were mangled and buried in the rubble of the demolished structures inside.
Furniture, blankets, mattresses, clothes and soft toys were scattered on the streets. A copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, lay in the street with its dusty pages fluttering until it was reverently lifted and kissed by a Hezbollah gunman.
Dahiyah was empty except for guerrillas and a few residents who returned to their homes to collect belongings before fleeing again to take refuge elsewhere.
"We want to sleep on our own pillows in the shelter," Mariam Shihabiyah, a 39-year-old mother of five said as she emerged from scrounging a few supplies from her apartment in a badly damaged building. "I just want them and our clothes, that's all. Can you believe what happened to Dahiyah?"
Posters of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of Iran which backs the group, still cling to walls nearby. A German flag, hoisted during the football World Cup, hung across a narrow street.
Beirut, one of the most bustling cities in the Middle East, has turned to a ghost town as thousands of residents flee for the safety of villages and towns in the north of the country.
Those who remain in the city, which has a peacetime population of 1.5 million, were trying to carry on as normal even as the eerie calm was shattered by the sound of regular heavy Israeli strikes on the southern suburbs.
Children played in the streets, neighbourhood stores remained open and there was even the odd bar and caf that was welcoming customers. Many in the city seemed determined to try to ignore a conflict that threatens to engulf their country.
One resident of predominantly Christian East Beirut said this "blitz spirit" was a tactic learnt during a 15-year-long civil war that ended in 1990.
"In their appearance you think they look relaxed but they are obliged to take this strategy to survive. Everyone knows this situation is very, very serious" he said, declining to give his name.
Yet, for many in Lebanon, the conflict has become impossible to ignore.
Schools and public buildings across the capital were filling up with refugees from the south of the country and the southern suburbs of Beirut. These areas have taken the brunt of an assault that has so far killed more than 100 people.
Hezbollah activist Ghassan Makarem said that the number of people fleeing the bombardment was increasing and around 60,000 refugees were arriving in Beirut.
"There's a big group of us co-ordinating relief work because the government did not think of this. Yesterday we had 40 schools and around 500 persons in each school, but today I think that number has doubled or tripled," he said.
One school in the Christian area of Ashrafieh had opened for the refugees, most of whom were Shia Muslim.
In the playground children relaxed playing games of football while their parents chain-smoked and watched the TV news. The elderly and very young slept on makeshift beds in the classrooms.
One resident from a village near the southern town of Tyre said most of his family had been unable to leave after the roads were destroyed.
"My wife and two daughters can't get out. My brothers and cousins are also there. In the area where I am from they are bombing heavily and have hit the local hospital."
Another man who had fled the southern suburbs of Beirut with his family said only a handful of people remained there.
"We ask the West to help us. Stop the bombing and let us return to our homes. The women and children are in a state of panic," he said.
But while Beirut may have become a refuge for many, the thousands of foreigners and dual passport holders who live in this cosmopolitan city are increasingly anxious to leave.
Aside from the option of paying up to 500 for a three hour taxi drive to Damascus on roads that have been targeted by the Israeli air force, many foreigners were relying on their embassy to provide safe passage out of the country.
"I took my washing to the laundry on Friday, but I guess I will have to leave it there" said Geoff Hughes, an American architect working in Lebanon who was waiting for information on the evacuation of US citizens.
"I am not scared but I am angry at Israel. I used to be neutral in this conflict but it just seems that they are trying to undo all the reconstruction that they have done since the war," he said.
The Hezbollah surge has come as such a shock to the Lebanese because its fighters had been relatively quiet since Israel's withdrawal from the south of the country in 2000 - a move seen across the Middle East as a rare victory against the all-powerful Israeli army and one chiefly won by Hezbollah. There have been occasional exchanges with Israeli forces since, but the once-hot Israeli-Lebanese border was seen by many as successfully quieted.
Hezbollah's star appeared to be falling somewhat, with the end of its ally Syria's control of Lebanon last year. Anti-Syrian sentiment across the country ended Hezbollah's image as a nationalist anti-Israel force, while Damascus' opponents came to dominate the government.
A series of dialogue meetings this year between Lebanon's politicians discussed disarming the group, though they dragged on without result.
Elections last year gave Hezbollah a strong parliament presence of 11 members and two seats in the Cabinet - but that only increased predictions among many Lebanese that the group would eventually consign guerrilla action to the past and become a political party.
All that vanished in an instant with Hezbollah's bold raid across the border to snatch two Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah clearly made a decision in favour of fighting over a political role, and felt confident it was strong enough for the fight it knew it was starting.
Meanwhile, the new fighting has only deepened the divisions in Lebanon - mostly along sectarian lines. The country's 1.2 million Shiites - out of a population of 3.8 million - largely support the group while Sunnis, Christians and Druse mostly oppose it.
Lebanon's army of about 70,000 soldiers far outnumbers Hezbollah's estimated 6,000. But its troops lack the guerrillas's battle experience, and could also break up along sectarian lines.
The guerrillas however, can call on thousands of supporters and the group's religious zeal - and willingness to die in battle - makes it a formidable foe.
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