Raising white flags, terrified Lebanese flee north

Date: 07-22-06

IBIL AL-SAQI, Lebanon (Reuters) - The two cars stopped hesitantly at the petrol station in the southern Lebanese village of Ibil al-Saqi. In the hills behind, plumes of white smoke from Israeli air strikes spiralled into the sky.

"Do you know where we should go? Which roads are safe?" asked a veiled woman in the back of the white Mercedes crammed with people fleeing from the border village of Tallousi.

Crammed into taxis and buses or piled into pickup trucks, thousands of people fled southern Lebanon on Saturday, trailing white flags from their windows hoping to stave off Israeli air strikes that have battered the area.

Convoys of vehicles sped down winding rural roads, their occupants persuaded to flee by 11 days of bombardment and growing fears of deeper Israeli raids into Lebanon.

"The air strikes got really bad. There was no food or water left," said Mohammed Nasrallah, a teenager riding in an open-top truck crammed with people who had left the village of Houla, a couple of kilometres north of the Israeli border.

"There was no one left," said an elderly lady with a deeply creased face sitting at his feet.

The Israeli offensive, which aims to stop Hizbollah rocket fire into Israel, has killed more than 350 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and displaced half a million people.

Israeli forces urged the residents of 14 Lebanese border villages to leave on Saturday, Israeli military sources said.

Israel had previously dropped leaflets on the south, urging residents to flee to safety beyond the Litani river, some 20 km north of the border.

Many said they were leaving because of the air raids, not Israeli warnings.

"We decided to leave because there was bombardment right near the village," said Abu Ramsi, leaving Ibil al-Saqi in a family car with his wife and relatives in the back.

"We are not going far, just to Hasbaya. Hopefully this will not last and we will be back soon," he said.


No more than an hour after they had left to Hasbaya, a Druze town of winding streets 20 km northeast of the border, an Israeli warplane blew a crater in a main road connecting it with Ibil al-Saqi.

Two people driving past were wounded, the missile striking just behind them. The strike left only one winding and bumpy side road linking the areas. Within hours, Israeli jets hit that last remaining route.

In Hasbaya loud speakers warned residents against gathering in the street so as not to attract air strikes.

"The town of Hasbaya calls on our residents not to speed or sound their horns, or gather in any public place due to the situation," messages read over loud hailers said.

Schools in Hasbaya were full of people displaced from villages closer to the border, where only a few determined residents remained.

"I have been encouraging everyone to stay," said Faisal Rahaal, who owns a petrol station in Ibil al-Saqi, as he filled the cars of fleeing families. "If everyone in the town decides to leave, then I'll have to. But I want to stay."


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