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Lebanon Pleas for Safety of Ancient Roman Ruins

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now for more on the Israeli raid on Baalbek in the eastern Bekaa Valley, and an update on the humanitarian situation in Lebanon, we turn to NPR's Jackie Northam who's in Beirut. And Jackie, what more can you tell us about the raid on Baalbek?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

It started very late last night. Israeli helicopters moved into the eastern part of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, very near to Baalbek. They dropped three groups of commandos near a hospital and there was very heavy fighting in the area for several hours between the Israeli soldiers and the Hezbollah guerillas. Israel says its helicopters also provided cover for its soldiers, and ultimately ended up firing missiles and heavy machinegun fire. They targeted several suspected Hezbollah sites around the hospital in Baalbek itself and some other areas.

Lebanese sources say that 19 people were killed in the strikes, and that included four children. When it was all over, though, Israel said it had captured five Hezbollah fighters and they were taken back to Israel.

Now Hezbollah says those people who were captured were not part of their organization, that they were civilians. However Lebanese security officials say, in fact, the men who were captured were low-level members of Hezbollah.

MONTAGNE: And why this place? Why Baalbek?

NORTHAM: Well, Baalbek is a Hezbollah stronghold, no question, and it's also where, actually, Iran's Revolutionary Guard trained Hezbollah guerrillas during the 1980s.

The city is about 80 miles from Israel, and Hezbollah says that the hospital that the commandos hit during this raid, the Dar al-Hikma Hospital, is only about ten miles from Lebanon's border with Syria, so it's a strategic area.

Residents in Baalbek say that this hospital is financed by an Iranian charity, the Imam Khomeini Charitable Society, and that it has close ties to Hezbollah.

By the way, Renee, Israeli warplanes hit that hospital last night and destroyed most of it. It had already been evacuated. But they also destroyed a couple of bridges in another part of the Bekaa Valley, up towards the north, and then in another part of northern Lebanon, as well.

MONTAGNE: Lebanon has urged the international community to appeal to the Israelis not to hit ancient ruins in Baalbek, a city with a history which stretches back thousands of years.

NORTHAM: It really does. These are Roman ruins, and arguably they're probably the most important Roman sites in the Middle East. The temples were built on a grand scale that competed with anything in Rome.

Now, last night's raid is not the first Israeli attack on Baalbek during this conflict. There have been a number of strategic air strikes in that area. And earlier this week I spoke with Lebanon's Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, and he said these ruins, as well as several others in the country, were on the World Heritage List. Mr. Mitri said that he had written, as you say, a letter to UNESCO, as well as his counterparts all over the world, and he also sent a letter to the U.S. Ambassador here in Beirut, asking them to intervene with Israel to make sure those sites are not targeted, nor anywhere in their vicinity, should it be hit.

Mr. Mitri said he got a letter back from the director general of UNESCO and it was, at best, ambiguous. He said it was something along the lines - the director general had heard from Israel and he would like to be convinced that the Israeli authorities would not hit any of these sites, but certainly he was not left with any sense that there was a full guarantee that that wouldn't happen.

MONTAGNE: Let's turn to the humanitarian crisis in southern Lebanon. What is the latest?

NORTHAM: Well, aid is starting to come in. There is flights arriving every day now. A couple of days ago France started sending in humanitarian supplies. Arab nations are coming in by air from the United Arab Emerits, Jordan - Saudi Arabia is due to send some stuff in as well.

There's also some goods coming in across the border from Syria. Unfortunately, there's only one border crossing that's open, the rest have been bombed and they can't get any trucks through.

The thing is, it's getting into the main cities. And we're back to the same old problem. Its here, it's in the main city, but it's so difficult to get it down to the people who need it most. Now aid agencies were really hopeful earlier this week when Israel announced that it would partially suspend its air strikes, and that really gave them a chance to get in and help people way deep in the south of Lebanon. Unfortunately, that, you know, that didn't happen. The partial air strikes really didn't last very long, and so they can't get it.

A couple of convoys tried to get out. They got there, but no others have been able to get out. So we're pretty much in the same situation as we were, you know, a week ago, in that people really help - are suffering and they need to get these relief supplies to them.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, thanks very much.

NPR's Jackie Northam speaking from Beirut.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.