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Hezbollah Fires Rockets into Haifa, Killing Eight

SHEILAH KAST, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast.

The fighting in the Middle East continued to escalate today. Israeli jets are again pounding sites in and around Beirut, the strikes are targeting Hezbollah strongholds and Lebanese infrastructure.

Hezbollah today struck Haifa, Israel's third largest city, with at least ten longer range rockets. At least eight Israelis were killed, the highest civilian death toll in Israel since the latest fighting began, and the deadliest Hezbollah attack on Israel in a decade.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the attack would have, quote, far-reaching consequences for Lebanon. Other northern towns also were hit, and residents were warned to go to bomb shelters.

From Haifa, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Most people in Haifa had just arrived to work this Sunday, a regular work day in Israel, when the warning sirens began to sound. People heeded calls to leave their cars and rushed indoors or to bomb shelters. The worst hit was an industrial area of Haifa, where a large garage for repairing trains suffered a direct hit.

Haifa's chief of police, Nir Mariash(ph), says explosive experts are now working to determine what kind of new longer-range rocket hit the city.

Mr. NIR MARIASH (Chief of Police, Haifa, Israel): It's not the same Katyusha that was used in the previous attacks on Israel. We don't know exactly right now what it is exactly. But we know for sure it's a larger rocket.

WESTERVELT: The rocket ripped a giant hole in the train garage's roof, and killed eight workmen who had just started their day repairing commuter trains. Itsak Sharysha(ph), an Israeli Army officer, rushed to the scene on his motorcycle to see if a friend who works here was safe. He was.

Mr. ITSAK SHARYSHA (Israeli Army Officer): I see the big hole and I smelled the bomb. It's a very bad smell. And I smelled the blood.

WESTERVELT: After a security cabinet meeting, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, quote, this is a difficult morning, but we have no intention to fold. Olmert said the attack would have far-reaching consequences on Lebanon.

At the attack site, Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the attack would only intensify the violence.

Ms. MIRI EISIN (Israeli Government Spokeswoman): Israel will know how to respond in kind. Israel will not tolerate such attacks, and we will not tolerate almost a million Israelis that are in bomb shelters underground as we speak. Hezbollah is making a mistake. They think we're weak. We're strong.

WESTERVELT: Eisin said the rockets may have been the Iranian-made Rad-2(ph) or Rad-3(ph), or rockets made in Syria. She says Iran and Syria have armed Hezbollah and bear responsibility.

Israel does not want a wider fight, she says, but she doesn't rule it out.

Ms. EISIN: We're fighting on our northern border. We're fighting against the Lebanese government, who refuses to take responsibility. We do not want to open additional fronts. As we talk now, this is a definite escalation and Israel will think about what we need to do. And I'll leave it at that for the moment.

WESTERVELT: The cities of Acco and Nahariya were also hit by multiple rocket attacks today. Like the city of Acco just north of here, Haifa's Jews, Israeli Arabs and Christians live together in relative harmony. Police chief Mariash says the city will remain strong and united.

Mr. MARIASH: Haifa is a big city. We have people from all the religions living in Haifa together in peace for many years. I'm sure this attack will not change any of it. Nothing will change with the co-existence here.

WESTERVELT: Sirens soon wailed again, sending people rushing for cover. A third wave of rockets hit south Haifa, injuring a few people. In all, in addition to the eight killed, at least 20 others were wounded. Four are in serious condition.

Haifa residents have now been ordered to say in shelters, and the Israeli government today raised the alert level for Tel Aviv, more than 80 miles south of the Lebanese border. Residents there are advised to stay alert for any warning sirens of possible rocket or missile attacks.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Haifa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.