Militants step up firepower

Hezbollah hits Israeli warship with drone

BEIRUT — The Hezbollah militant group flew an explosive-packed, remote-controlled drone into an Israeli warship off the coast of Lebanon yesterday, heavily damaging the ship hours after an Israeli airstrike destroyed the headquarters of Hezbollah’s leader in a southern Beirut suburb.

The Israeli military was searching for four missing sailors and towing the damaged ship back to Israel, local media reported.

The display of yet another new weapon in the hands of the Lebanese Shi’ite group — which hit a major Israeli city with an improved, longer-range rocket for the first time on Thursday — seemed timed to coincide with the broadcast of a defiant speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who told Israel after his office was bombed, “You wanted an open war, and we are ready for an open war.”

In the third day of fighting, Israel bombarded a bridge, a fuel depot, and Hezb ollah offices in the southern Beirut neighborhoods where the group draws its strongest support, and Hezbollah rained dozens more rockets on northern Israel.

In Meron, northern Israel, a rocket killed a woman and her grandson. At least two people were killed in Lebanon, the government said, but Beirut hospitals put the toll higher. At least 73 Lebanese and 12 Israelis have been killed in the clashes.

Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for Hezbollah’s cross-border raid Wednesday that killed two Israeli soldiers and captured two others. Lebanon asked for a cease-fire, saying it does not control the militant group. But Israeli offcials said they would continue the attack until Hezbollah is disarmed, and President Bush — in Russia for a weekend summit — declined a request from Lebanon to press Israel to seek a truce.

At the same time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel told UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that he would allow UN mediation toward a cease-fire if the terms included disarming Hezbollah and returning the soldiers.

Residents of the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut woke up to scenes of destroyed bridges, broken glass, and rubble on the streets. Flames and smoke were still leaping into the air yesterday, hours after Israeli warplanes hit Beirut’s airport, setting its fuel tanks ablaze.

Israeli warplanes had dropped leaflets warning residents to stay away from the Hezbollah areas, but many had remained there. “The building was shaking, and we could only hear people screaming,” said Othman Zein, 55, a truck driver, as he recalled the Israeli raid that rattled his home Thursday night.

Many people in the neighborhoods that were hit expressed anger at Hezbollah, unusual in the areas where Hezbollah runs an Iranian-funded network of social services, including schools, hospitals, and charities. Many Lebanese also credit Hezbollah’s guerillas with driving the Israelis from South Lebanon in 2000.

Hezbollah is believed to have provoked Israeli attacks in order to shore up popularity that has faded in the six years since Israeli troops left, and to fend off calls from Sunnis and Christians to disarm the Shi’ite group that have grown since Syrian troops withdrew last year.

But Zein, who has been unable to work to feed his family of seven since the fighting began, blamed Hezbollah. “We’re a small country that can’t afford to go to war,” he said. “They are driving us like sheep, taking us to war or peace whenever they want to.”

“Hezbollah shouldn’t have kidnapped the soldiers,” said Hassan Dayekh, 45, another resident of the suburb. “We can’t fight Israel. It is a superpower, and if we kill one Israeli, they kill a hundred Lebanese.”

Some of their neighbors, though, still supported Hezbollah.

“We don’t want water or electricity; the most important thing is our dignity and Nasrallah is the only one who gave it back to us,” said Ali Mahmoud, sitting near a poster of the Hezbollah leader, a few yards away from the Hezbollah offices.

“The Israelis want to terrorize the Lebanese people to put pressure on Hezbollah,” said Souad Hussein, 33, a surgeon whose home and clinic are nearby.

Israeli strikes continued across central and southern Lebanon, destroying much that was rebuilt after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The escalation of violence, at the height of the summer tourism season, is driving a stake into the country’s financial heart, said Joseph Sarkis, the minister of tourism. “Twenty years of reconstruction are being destroyed in a few days or weeks by the Israelis.”

In Israel, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of residents of northern towns took cover in bomb shelters. More Israeli cities could be threatened by new Hezbollah rockets that can go more than 43 miles, Israel military officials said.

One Katyusha struck in the heart of Nahariya yesterday, leaving a crater in the town’s main street and taking down a branch of a towering tree in the middle of the boulevard. The streets were quiet, except for the squeaking chain of a passing bicycle.

“Nahariya didn’t take rocket fire for the last 10 years,” said Tzvi Cahana, 22, who was born there. “Most of the people left, but everyone who stayed is bonding together in the bomb shelters, even with our own neighbors who we don’t get along with.”

In a show of solidarity, the host of Israel’s popular “A Star is Born” televised talent show broadcast live from northern Israel.

“We embrace and love you,” the announcer told northern residents at the start of the program, before a cellphone company commercial announced “free calls overseas to all the residents at the Northern border.”

Anne Barnard of the Globe staff and correspondent Alon Tuval contributed to this report from Jerusalem, and correspondent Rafael D. Frankel contributed from Nahariya. Material from the Associated Press was also used.

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