Red Cross takes fire

Craig Nelson - For the Journal-Constitution
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tyre, Lebanon --- Kasem Chaalan had an inkling
something bad would happen.

Chaalan, 28, was hurrying out of the headquarters of
the local chapter of the Lebanese Red Cross late
Sunday evening to pick up some wounded. As he rushed
toward the door, he asked his colleagues lounging in
the office in this southern Lebanese town to forgive
him for any wrongs he may have done them.

It was the first time in 13 years of volunteering for
the Red Cross that he had ever uttered such words.

"I don't know why I said it," he recalled Monday,
hours after Israeli rockets hit his ambulance and
another vehicle, wounding him and eight others.

In its effort to weaken the Islamic Hezbollah militia,
prevent its rockets from raining on Israeli towns and
secure the return of two captured Israeli soldiers,
Israel has kept up an assault on southern Lebanon with
airstrikes, artillery and a swelling ground offensive.

Across what have become some of the most perilous
stretches of road in the world, Chaalan and other Red
Cross volunteers venture into the combat zone. The
Lebanese Red Cross is one of the few organizations in
southern Lebanon working to evacuate the wounded and
civilians under fire.

Late Sunday, Chaalan and two other volunteers drove
their ambulance 10 miles southeast to the town of
Qana, where they met another Red Cross ambulance from
the village of Tebnine. It was carrying three wounded
people in need of medical care in the better-equipped
hospitals to the north.

Shortly after the three wounded Lebanese were lifted
from one ambulance to the other, the red cross atop
each converted white Toyota van became a bull's-eye.

Chaalan and his crew loaded the three wounded into
their ambulance. As he closed the vehicle's rear door,
an Israeli rocket hurtled through the roof of the

Thrown to the ground and blinded briefly by the blast,
Chaalan shouted to the crew of the second ambulance to
call headquarters. The call went out: "Ambulance 777
has been targeted." Within seconds, an Israeli missile
tore through the roof of the second ambulance.

For the next 90 minutes, while requests for clearances
were transmitted to Israeli authorities through Beirut
and the headquarters of the International Committee of
the Red Cross in the Swiss city of Geneva, the
three-man crews of each ambulance looked after each
other and the three wounded people until help arrived.

Fuller explanation sought

Late Monday, one of the wounded --- 40-year-old Ahmed
Mustafa Farwaz --- lay in a coma in a Jabel Amel
Hospital in Tyre with his right leg amputated and his
left leg fractured. His son Mohammed Farwaz, 14, was
in serious condition with shrapnel wounds in his
abdomen. The third wounded person, who was
unidentified, was transferred in critical condition
north to a hospital in Sidon. The Red Cross workers
suffered light injuries.

"The incident in which vehicles were hit last night
occurred in an area known to be one of the main
sources of the launching of hundreds of missiles," an
Israeli army spokesman said Monday in a statement.
Civilians had been warned with leaflets and by radio
broadcasts to leave the area, the statement said, and
Israel blamed Hezbollah for placing civilians in the
area at risk.

The Red Cross asked Israel for a fuller explanation.

"The ICRC is gravely concerned about the safety of
medical staff," Balthasar Staehelin, the
organization's delegate-general for the Middle East
and North Africa, said in a statement. "We have raised
this issue with the Israeli authorities and urged them
to take the measures needed to avoid such incidents in
the future."

In Sunday's incident, both Red Cross ambulances were
plainly marked. Each vehicle was flashing a blue
emergency light and displayed a Red Cross flag that
was illuminated, Chaalan said.

Israel blames Hezbollah

In the past, Israeli authorities have alleged that
ambulances were used by Palestinian militants in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip to transport weapons and

Israel has often boasted of the pinpoint accuracy of
its air attacks, and denies that it is targeting
civilians. Civilians are harmed, Israeli officials
say, because Hezbollah operates in populated areas.

Nursing a wide bandage that covered three stitches in
the cleft of his chin, Chaalan, who when he is not
volunteering for the Red Cross defuses land mines in
southern Lebanon for a British aid group, refused to
say whether he thought the attack on the ambulances
was deliberate.

However, Ali Deeb, a spokesman for the local Red Cross
chapter, said the possibility that two rockets fired
into identical locations in the roofs of two
ambulances were a coincidence or an accident was

As he spoke, nearby against the low-slung wall of the
Red Cross compound was the discarded equipment of a
rescue mission gone horribly wrong --- two stretchers,
covered in blood and partially scorched and melted
from the heat of the missile blast and a Red Cross
helmet scarred with shrapnel.

Next to them was a line of parked Red Cross vehicles.
They were unlikely to be used anytime soon in a war
that continues to rage in the countryside around this
southern Lebanese city. Due to the danger of the roads
to the south and east of Tyre, all are now barred from
going outside the city limits to retrieve the wounded.

Staff writer Don Melvin ( contributed
to this article from Jerusalem. 


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