Sunday, August 13, 2006

Before Attack, Mixed Messages on Convoy’s Right to Go

New York Times
New York Times
August 13, 2006
Before Attack, Mixed Messages on Convoy’s Right to Go

HASBAYA, Lebanon, Aug. 12 — On a dark, narrow stretch of mountain valley road on Friday night, Israeli drones shot missiles at a long line of Lebanese fleeing in their cars. Six people were killed and more than 30 were wounded, eyewitnesses and officials said.

More than a thousand Lebanese civilians from several southern villages were driving bumper-to-bumper down a road near the wine-making village Kefraya when the missiles hit around 9 p.m., said Ronitte Daher, a newspaper reporter from the village of Qlayah.

The people were fleeing villages that Israeli troops had recently occupied, and believed they had permission from the Israeli military to pass.

The Israeli Army, in a statement, denied it had granted permission, and said it had acted on the mistaken suspicion that Hezbollah guerrillas were smuggling weapons in the vehicles. It reiterated that it had banned the movement of cars south of the Litani River, though the convoy was hit well north of it.

“We saw the light and the sound of the bomb,” said Ms. Daher, who was traveling in the convoy with her sister. “I got out of the car and heard voices of people crying and shouting.”

Between two and three missiles hit the convoy, eyewitnesses and officials said. Among the dead were a Lebanese Army soldier, a baker and a Red Cross emergency worker. A Lebanese Army unit had traveled with the convoy, leaving a base the Israelis recently occupied.

What followed was a scene of panic under a large yellow moon. Someone started to shout that drivers should turn off their lights. Someone else told people to get out of their cars and run for cover. Suddenly, dozens of cars began to turn around in the dark, frantically trying to leave the area that was being hit from above by invisible Israeli planes.

“When I was turning, I saw a dead body,” Ms. Daher said. “I know that man. I saw his children — crying and shouting, ‘please help us, please help us.’ ”

Dozens of cars turned back along the road, racing to Jib Janine, the town they had driven through. In the town, residents offered the travelers places to spend the night.

Ms. Daher stayed in the home of a family she had never met. They gave her water.

Other drivers, hearing about the attack by cellphone, simply stopped in the dark. On Friday night, shortly after the attack, clumps of cars were idling in two parking lots south of Jib Jenine. People stood outside in the bright moonlight. The mayor of Marjayoun, Fuad Hamra, also part of the convoy but far from the attack, said people began to panic.

“Something went wrong,” he said by telephone from Beirut. “Probably the clearance wasn’t cleared enough.”

“We were promised that we would have the clearance from Israelis and the road would be cleared,” he said. “Neither happened.”

The villagers had seen the convoy as a kind of rescue force. They had not left their homes since Wednesday night, ordered by Israeli soldiers who occupied their towns to stay inside and not even look out the windows.

* Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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