Civilians Warned to Flee Southern Lebanon

Israel has warned Lebanese civilians to leave areas along the border between the two nations as fighting with Hezbollah militants enters its tenth consecutive day. In the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, hospital staff are burying corpses in a temporary mass grave to clear space in the morgue.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

Coming up, the Israel Defense Force perspective on the country's conflict with Hezbollah. But first, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be in the Middle East on Monday. She will try to broker some sort of diplomatic solution to the fighting, but that fighting continues today.

Israeli troops launched small-scale raids into Lebanon to try to stop rocket attacks from Hezbollah fighters there. Three rockets hit Haifa, in Israel, again today, wounding 19 people. Israel has warned civilians in southern Lebanon to leave the area amid growing reports that Israel may move more forcefully into that area.

And the civilian death toll continues to rise in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre. NPR's Ivan Watson attended the mass burial today of some 80 civilians killed by Israeli strikes. Welcome, Ivan.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Thanks, Noah.

ADAMS: Ivan, the mass burial, why was that organized by the officials there?

WATSON: Well simply put, the number of dead overwhelmed the morgue capacity of the hospitals here. Normally the main hospital could hold three bodies. And also, there was such a fear of taking the victims back to their villages because of the security situation that they had to store the bodies.

Now the head doctor of the main hospital here, he said they were burying only the 80 bodies that he had identified so far out of 104 bodies that they had in storage. They were being stored in two refrigerator trucks in the courtyard of the hospital, and we watched workers build coffins next to the refrigerator trucks and then saw the grizzly work of unloading each of these bodies, one by one. The stench was overpowering.

You had relatives of the dead, not only wailing and crying - very dramatic scenes - but also retching because of the stench here. These bodies were loaded into coffins and taken on military trucks to an abandoned field where bulldozers dug two deep trenches and army soldiers, Lebanese army soldiers, lined the dead up one by one. And as this was going on, rescue workers delivered five more bodies to the hospital.

ADAMS: Are these civilians who have been killed? I mean, is it really clear that they were the victims of Israeli air strikes?

WATSON: I think it's very clear because I spoke with relative after relative - some of them very angry, some of them of course, in tears - describing the situations when they were hit - that the family was either in a house that was located close to a bridge that was hit by Israeli missiles, or that they were driving in vehicles and they heard of Israeli jets or saw a helicopter and then their vehicle was hit.

I don't think there's very much doubt as to who is firing on these civilians. And in many of these cases, in one particular - in Marwaheen over last weekend, where more than 20 people were killed, most of them women and children from poor families - they were in trucks trying to flee the area after the Israeli military warned the civilian population to evacuate southern Lebanon.

ADAMS: You're in the port city of Tyre. Any sign of the fighting today there?

WATSON: There is constant bombardment of the hills around this coastal town. The sound of jets overhead is also constant. I saw several helicopters again today, circling overhead, and the bombing is getting closer to the town with each passing day.

ADAMS: And even with this confusion about leaving, are people still trying to get our of Tyre, and go where?

WATSON: Well it's presumed that further north it is more safe, and there were leaflets distributed again, by the Israeli military today, saying the entire population of the south has to move north of the Litani river - that's about 15 miles north of here - that the Israel military was responding because of the terrorist acts that were carried out from within these villages, from within the homes of these residents.

Many people have tried to leave, but many area also staying, in part because it costs so much to leave or they're so afraid to drive up on roads that are repeatedly bombed by Israeli aircraft or they are infirm and ill - they can't make the trip - or simply put, they're defiant. They refuse to leave their homes.

ADAMS: NPR's Ivan Watson talking with us from Tyre, Lebanon. Thank you, Ivan.

WATSON: You're welcome, Noah.

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