Aid convoys struggle to reach the displaced

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Aid agencies warned on Wednesday they were facing a logistical nightmare trying to reach thousands of displaced Lebanese as the World Health Organisation said that more than half of the country’s hospitals would cease to function in coming days if fuel did not arrive soon.

Israel has maintained an air, sea and partial land blockade on Lebanon since conflict ignited a month ago. It has allowed aid convoys to reach the south, where Hizbollah guerrillas are putting up fierce resistance to an Israeli ground invasion, only on a case-by-case basis.

Israeli warplanes struck vehicles close to a World Food Programme convoy twice on Monday, and blew up the last bridge connecting northern Lebanon with the southern town of Tyre, where thousands of displaced people from outlying villages are under regular bombardment.

“We are now finding it difficult to find drivers,” said Robin Lodge of the WFP, adding that it had been three days since the organisation reached the south.

Clearance from Israel for convoys was arriving too late in the day, he said while the destruction of bridges had made many roads impassable. A relief convoy from the Syrian capital Damascus took three days to reach Beirut – a journey that would normally take five hours. But it travelled along a road that had been bombed last week.

“Food is running out in Tyre and there is also a shortage of clean water,” Mr Lodge said.

The Lebanese government yesterday released the latest figures of victims in the conflict in Lebanon, showing nearly a million people have been displaced, 1,020 killed, over a third of them children, and 3,500 wounded.

UNHCR officials said most of the southern part of the country had been depopulated but there were still around 100,000 people in areas where access was most difficult.

Last week the UN negotiated passage with Israel for two tankers off the coast of Cyprus to replenish Lebanese stocks of diesel and fuel oil to run power plants. But for insurance reasons the ships demanded more formal safety guarantees.

Officials in Beirut said there was some hope. A US navy ship may escort one of the tankers, while another would offload its cargo onto a smaller Lebanese vessel. However an adviser to Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, said progress was too slow.

By rationing power the government has extended its reserves, but these are now dwindling fast.

UN officials said they were trying to collect enough fuel to keep hospital generators, on which incubators, operating theatres and refrigerators depend. But at least one hospital was expected to run out by yesterday.

Business associations have been trying to negotiate via western diplomats an economic corridor. This would allow fuel and other essentials through the Israeli blockade and exports out.

“We are still working on it but so far there is nothing positive,” said Adnan Kassar, chairman of the Lebanese economic organisation. “Israel is insisting on maintaining the blockade. We are trying to bring some gas from Syria for cars but we are just hearing that they are bombarding the tankers,” he said.

Lebanon has around 11m litres of petrol in a storage facility that is now inaccessible. The country has been surviving on around 600,000 litres driven in from Syria per day. This meets only one sixth of demand and has led to a doubling of fuel prices on the black market.

■Lebanese media reported that air raids on the home of a Hizbollah political member in the Bekaa valley had killed him, his wife and five children.

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