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    Middle East
     Aug 8, 2006
Dodging drones on the road from hell
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

MARJAYOUN and NABATIYEH, Lebanon - While Israel pushes its ground troops deeper into south Lebanon toward the Litani River, Hezbollah is responding by retreating to the mountains around the towns of Marjayoun and Nabatiyeh, Asia Times Online on-the-ground investigations show.

In preparation for its push north, Israel has dropped pamphlets urging all civilians to leave the cities around and including Tyre and Sidon. This is likely to be followed by heavy aerial attacks, and then the ground troops.

The plan is that once Israeli forces reach the Litani, Hezbollah would have no option but to retreat up to the Bekaa Valley or into northern cities, where its fighters would be more isolated.

However, this is not as simple as it appears, and a visit by this

correspondent to the mountain vastness of Marjayoun and Nabatiyeh confirms that the Lebanese resistance also has a two-pronged plan.

According to people close to the resistance, the first stage is to rain rockets on to any Israeli troops in south Lebanon from the Marjayoun area. Then long-range Hezbollah rockets will be fired into Israel.

A journey from hell
The area around Marjayoun, which lies midway between Tyre and Sidon but to the east toward the Israeli border, is not for the faint-hearted: with no understatement it could be described as the hottest war front in the country.

Three of us set out in a black Mercedes - this correspondent, a Dutch photojournalist and a Hungarian documentary maker.

As one gets closer to the border - about 10 kilometers away - the more the towns have been bombed, and the more they are deserted. The aim is to cut off logistical support for Hezbollah.

We proceeded slowly on narrow tracks, but were brought to a halt at a bombed-out bridge that prevented us from crossing the Litani, just 5km from the border.

With the car stopped, the sounds of Israeli drones in the sky above became all too clear. My colleagues refused to go further on foot. As we discussed what to do, the driver, Jehad, announced that we had a flat tire, and the spare was for the wrong make of car.

The driver called civil defense for assistance, but despite their positive reply, he proceeded to drive back with the flat tire. "I swear if we stop here they will bomb the car. We should keep moving," a clearly agitated Jehad insisted.

Soon the tire was in shreds, and we implored him to stop before the rim was damaged. He halted, but the constant sound of the drones above pushed him to move again. He told us to follow on foot if we wanted, which we did.

Only as the car disappeared over a ridge did we realize what a target we must make: three figures walking in the middle of nowhere, lugging bags that could easily be carrying ammunition.

The tension was palpable as we silently trudged on. Then we came across our car, with the welcome sight of civil defense and Lebanese army helpers. The tire was quickly fixed and we drove to the nearby town of Janine.

Our sojourn had not gone unnoticed, though. The civil defense told us later that just 10 minutes after we left the area, Israeli bombs began to fall. Their reconnaissance can't be faulted.

Nevertheless, we pushed on for the city of Nabatiyeh, near the border, another favorite Israeli target.

Passing through the destroyed villages of Marmta and Rehan we were stopped at many checkpoints by civilians and asked to produce identification. At one point we were stopped for about half an hour.

I had only one query for my interrogators when they had finished their inquiries: "If all the routes have been destroyed, how can Hezbollah get supplies and move its men?"

The answer came with a smile: "Mules and donkeys."

But there is more to it than that.

The village of Jarjauh lies on the way to Nabatiyeh. It's a mess; what buildings haven't been totally razed are just piles of rubble. We sniffed around, and in one of the partially damaged buildings we found a brand-new truck, covered with a sheet and clearly loaded with something. I was about to take a picture, but Jehad objected strongly, a terrified look on his face.

"This truck certainly belongs to the resistance, and if they see us taking pictures, they will chop us to pieces. Move!" Without waiting for our protestations, he pushed us into the car and drove off - though we managed to snap a few shots.

After just 500 meters we were again face-to-face with some men wanting to check us out. They were carrying radio sets, but were friendly and guided us all the way to Nabatiyeh.

As we were leaving Jarjauh we saw the yellow smoke trail of a Hezbollah missile arcing from a nearby mountain toward Israel. The driver stepped on the gas.

Earlier, near Farfilla village, we came across two lads walking on the road. They were injured. They had been driving a car, but became spooked by the drones overhead and spun off the road down a 50-meter slope. We gave them some water and food and informed the civil defense of their location.

We roamed all over Nabatiyeh and found virtually all houses and shops destroyed. Nabatiyeh was the main financial artery of the resistance, deriving much of its wealth from the diamond trade, especially with East African countries. Most of the city dwellers have now fled. Some of the few remaining residents sat on the sidewalk of an empty market, drinking tea and waiting for more bombs to fall.

Suddenly, we heard of some casualties and we ran toward a hospital managed by the Iranian Red Crescent. Apparently four guerrillas had been wounded in air strikes. On their way to hospital they were spotted by the ever-vigilant drones and their car was hit by a bomb right in front of the hospital.

Dozens of bearded lads had descended on the hospital. They prevented the press, including us three and a cameraman from Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV, from entering the emergency area. They only allowed us to take shots of the destroyed car. The wounded men were not hurt further in the second attack.

Apart from our mishaps and constant nagging fear, the journey was illuminating in that it revealed to us how Hezbollah has dug in deep across the countryside, and is still capable of launching missiles. They command the high ground of a ridge overlooking Israel.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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