BEIRUT, Lebanon – With fears of a humanitarian crisis growing, Israel opened up its blockade of Lebanon’s ports to allow the first shiploads of aid to arrive, and tens of thousands of Lebanese fled north to escape Israeli army incursions.
In Beirut, a steady stream of foreign nationals lined up Saturday to board ships and planes that would take them away from the violence.
Some 35,000 Lebanese filled the southern port town of Sidon as they searched for a place to stay or a way to get farther north. With the town of 100,000 unable to absorb more refugees, many families were joining Palestinians in a refugee camp.
Israel lifted its sea blockade Friday after Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman said his country would open a humanitarian corridor for food, medicine and other supplies.
A Greek warship carrying 22 tons of humanitarian supplies arrived Friday in Beirut, followed Saturday by another with 14 tons of supplies, the Greek Foreign Ministry said. An Italian navy ship was expected Sunday.
It was unclear how the supplies would get to isolated towns and villages in the south â€” the center of the war zone â€” where main routes and many side roads through the mountains have been cut off by Israeli airstrikes. Missiles and artillery continue to fall in the area, making the roads still dangerous.
Sidon, 20 miles south of Beirut, has swelled with 35,000 refugees from the south, Mayor Abdul-Rahman al-Bizri said.
A constant stream of cars flowed down the main street. Vegetable markets were open only for several hours before their day’s supplies ran out amid the rush to stock up.
“I’m afraid a disaster is going to happen with all these refugees. There’s no aid, not from other nations, not from Lebanon,” said al-Bizri, who has been sleeping in his office for days.
The Sidon area has largely been spared Israeli bombardment in recent days, but a wave of bombings early in the Israeli offensive shattered the main roads in and out of the city. Sidon is about halfway between Beirut and the port of Tyre, which is the biggest city south of the Litani River and has borne the brunt of severe Israeli strikes.
Refugees have been filling schools in Sidon for days â€” and by Friday they were full. So the southern Lebanese joined Palestinian refugees in the nearby camp of Ain Hilweh, moving into schools in the camp. Palestinians were supplying them with whatever blankets and foam mattresses they could spare.
Others tried to go north. The main coastal highway has been cut and bridges destroyed â€” as has the parallel, older Sidon-Beirut route â€” forcing cars to make their way up winding roads into the Shouf mountains.
Israel has blockaded the ports since its offensive against Lebanon began after the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas.
U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland called on Israel to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian goods into northern Lebanon by road; into the ports of Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre for sea cargo; and into Beirut airport for air shipments. The airport has been put out of commission by Israeli strikes on its runways.
It was not clear, however, whether Israel had agreed to define routes inside the country for the aid to be moved.
Al-Bizri said he had received no word about any arrangements to deliver aid to Sidon.
The United Nations estimates that more than 500,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon.
The flight appeared to be accelerating as Israel warned everyone south of the Litani â€” 20 miles from the border â€” to flee north. The region has more than 400,000 people, and some estimates said well over half have streamed north.
Hundreds of Israeli troops knocked down a border fence and moved into the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras on Saturday, engaging Hezbollah militants as part of the country’s limited ground campaign.
Marwaheen and surrounding villages were rapidly emptying, an area of about 6,000 people reduced to around 500, security officials said.
Tyre has dwindled from some 175,000 people to only 5,000. Soldiers on Friday dug a mass grave and buried over 70 victims of the bombardment in it, many of them children. Less than two dozen mourners turned up, a sign of how the usually bustling port city has emptied.
The first international Red Cross relief convoy to Tyre arrived Friday after a six-hour journey over damaged roads from Beirut, a spokesman said.
The Lebanese health ministry reported 362 deaths in Lebanon. Thirty-four Israelis have been killed, including 19 soldiers.
Some 33,000 foreigners have fled Lebanon since Israel began its offensive.
In downtown Beirut, hundreds of Canadians waited at a seaside facility for their departure documents to be checked. Many rolled their luggage behind them, held the hands of their children and filed into the processing center. A few wept.
They rode buses to the water’s edge, and were to board a ship to Cyprus. Another big ship was expected to arrive in the afternoon to pick up more people, Canadian officials said.
Canadians comprise Lebanon’s largest foreign community, estimated at 50,000, and Canadian officials expect to evacuate some 30,000 of them eventually.
In Cyprus, Cypriot Foreign Minister George Lillikas said the island will need financial assistance from European countries if it is to keep receiving the tens of thousands of people fleeing Lebanon.
“We had about 20,000 to 25,000 people until now, and we are expecting that number to triple. That is why we need assistance from Europe,” Lillikas told AP Television News.
Some 8,000 of the 25,000 Americans who live in Lebanon have left.
Major U.S. evacuation operations were expected to be over by the end of the weekend, American officials said on condition of anonymity, according to embassy rules.
A Saudi-owned commercial ship sailed toward Turkey with 900 Americans on board. Two U.S. Navy transport ships also took 2,775 more Americans to Cyprus late Friday. That left two more Navy transport ships, a control and command vessel and two American destroyers still hovering in the Mediterranean.