Published: 18 July 2006
It streaked out of the heavens like a fiery meteor, crashing onto a truck and a car, spewing fuel on to the road. An Israeli helicopter shot down by a Hizbollah missile? Or - as the Israelis claimed - a container which fell from a military aircraft with nothing more lethal inside than propaganda papers addressed to the Lebanese? By the time I got there, the roadway, the bushes, the very trees were on fire and the car upon which this thing had crashed still contained its partly decapitated driver, bleeding his life away all down his shirt and trousers as he sat in the front seat.
Large pieces of metal were on the road, part of what might have been a cluster bomb on the verge and what looked suspiciously like a rotor blade on a pile of sand. But there were no tracts, no papers, no instructions to the people of Lebanon from the army which has been bombarding this country for the past six days. Then came the sound of Israeli jets and a huge explosion in an abandoned army base and, reader, we fled.
We are always fleeing these days. We drive fast through the southern suburbs of Beirut, a haunted place of rubble and fear, we speed past bomb craters, terrified that the planes will come back. We sprint away from Raouche when the ground shakes under our feet. Then - for this is a reporter's life in Beirut - we pant like dogs as we run for the vast palace in which the Lebanese Prime Minister holds court and where the men from the United Nations have arrived to bring us Peace in Our Time.
Well, maybe. It turned out that Kofi Annan's special adviser was Vijay Nambiar, brother of the former Indian commander to the doomed Unprofor in Bosnia, a man who used to turn up to press conferences wearing more medals than Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Second World War. Vijay, it seems, is a little more humble, though yesterday we suspected he had much to be humble about. He had held talks with Fouad Siniora, the Prime Minister, and his even more ineffective speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri.
There were to be no questions - a bad sign - and a parsing of the immensely dull Nambiar statement did not hold out much hope of an immediate end to air raids, killer missiles, piles of innocent dead and the vast packs of lies that have characterised this filthy war ever since Hizbollah crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two more last Wednesday. "Some promising first efforts ... first step ... much diplomatic work to be done before we have any grounds for optimism ... consequences of failure will be grave ... creative solution ... time is of the essence." Ouch. "Time is of the essence" was the UN's favourite cliché when they were trying to set up an Afghan authority in 2002. And we all know what a success story Afghanistan has turned out to be.
Mr Nambiar was accompanied by all the usual suspects; Alvaro de Soto, the "special" Middle East co-ordinator who has the plummiest accent in the UN, and Terje Rod-Larsen, who would like one day - yes, one day - to be the UN's secretary general. They left for Israel, Mr Nambiar adding that "as developments warrant, it may become necessary for us to return to Lebanon ..."
Oh indeed it will, and most of us have a pretty gruesome idea of what those developments might be: more Hizbollah missiles on to Haifa, more Israeli bombs on to the apartment blocks of Beirut and more - much more - death. George Bush's wonderful remark to Tony Blair in St Petersburg - "see the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit" - was spot on for once, especially the "shit" bit, but "getting" Syria to stop Hizbollah will cost a pretty price. Which George W may not realise.
So what else was new yesterday? Well, the Israeli army trotted over the border again - for about 30 metres - and then retreated behind their vulnerable south Lebanon frontier wire. Israeli jets killed another 17 Lebanese and wounded 53 more, taking the total death toll here to 196 against Israel's rising total of 24. The obscene exchange rate of death thus now stands at more than eight Lebanese for every Israeli.
An Israeli plane - though some said it was a shell from a gunboat - was fired into Beirut port, setting part of it afire and killing two workers, and another attack near Tripoli killed nine Lebanese soldiers. For every Katyusha barrage on Haifa there is now a renewed onslaught on Lebanon. And for every onslaught on Lebanon there is a renewed flurry of missiles heading for Haifa - as indeed there was yet again yesterday. So the war is now "blow up my city and I'll blow up one of yours". But wasn't that happening on a slightly larger scale in a different part of the world between 1939 and 1945? And did it work?
Foreigners continued to evacuate - not least because several of those killed by the Israelis have turned out to be Canadians and Brazilians of Lebanese ancestry. A small fleet of ships has started to arrive in Beirut from Cyprus now that the roads to Syria have almost all been bombed. Iran's foreign minister said a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners might be possible and the Lebanese government hinted that Italian mediators had already passed on messages to Beirut from Israel.
It all sounded too good to be true, especially when the Israelis had just ordered the entire population of southern Lebanon to leave their homes. Lebanon received Mr Blair's suggestion of an intervention force with something approaching surprise. After all, isn't there already just such a force in the south right now, called the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon? No doubt there would have to be a British component to such a force to repeat the British Army's magnificent performance in Afghanistan and Iraq. Heaven spare Lebanon that kind of success.
The latest news
41 Lebanese are killed, including 10 who died after Israeli aircraft opened fire on cars at Rmeileh, near Sidon.
Haifa port closed as three missiles hit, collapsing a building and wounding three.
Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister, says the offensive would stop when the two soldiers captured by Hizbollah were freed and the group was disarmed.
Lebanon's PM, Fouad Siniora, accuses Israel of state terrorism, blaming it for billions of dollars of damage.