UN Official Accuses Hezbollah of 'Cowardly Blending' Among Civilians

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LARNACA, Cyprus - The UN humanitarian chief accused Hezbollah late Monday of "cowardly blending" among Lebanese civilians and causing the deaths of hundreds during two weeks of cross-border violence with Israel.

The militant group has built bunkers and tunnels near the Israeli border to shelter weapons and fighters, and its members easily blend in among civilians.

Jan Egeland spoke with reporters at the Larnaca airport in Cyprus after a visit to Lebanon on his mission to coordinate an international aid effort.

On Sunday he had toured the rubble of Beirut's southern suburbs, a once-teeming Shiite district where Hezbollah had its headquarters.

During that visit he condemned the killing and wounding of civilians by both sides, and called Israel's offensive "disproportionate" and "a violation of international humanitarian law."

On Monday he had strong words for Hezbollah, which crossed into Israel and captured two Israel Defense Forces soldiers on July 12, triggering fierce fighting from both sides.

"Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending ... among women and children," he said. "I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men.

"We need a cessation of hostilities because this is a war where civilians are paying the price," said Egeland, before flying to Israel.

At Ben-Gurion airport, Egeland told reporters he would negotiate over a corridor for humanitarian aid inside Lebanon. "I'm here to work on the humanitarian crisis," he said, noting he will also visit Nahariya, hit hard by Hezbollah rockets.

At least 600,000 Lebanese have fled their homes since Hezbollah abducted two IDF soldiers on July 12, according to the World Health Organization. One estimate by Lebanon's finance minister putting the number at 750,000, nearly 20 percent of the population.

Israel's death toll is at least 40, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 23 soldiers killed in the fighting, authorities said.

During his visit to Lebanon, Egeland issued an urgent call for $150 million to help Lebanon through the next three months.

He said the first large UN convoy of humanitarian aid is expected to depart Beirut on Wednesday for the southern city of Tyre. Similar convoys will be scheduled every second day after that.

Egeland said he had received a "positive response" from Israel Defense Forces officials responsible for coordinating shipments from Beirut into the areas where Israel launched a military offensive July 12.

The IDF said final approval to open such a safe passage had not yet been given.