Underground city endures barrage

By Matthew Kalman
Globe Correspondent / July 18, 2006

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ACRE, Israel -- The underground city in the ancient port of Acre was built by the Crusaders and at this time of year is usually thronged with tourists. But against the background of wailing air-raid sirens and the dull thud of exploding rockets, Mayor Shimon Lankri said yesterday that the compound was now open 24 hours a day as a makeshift bomb shelter.

``We have been hit by five missiles so far, but no one has been badly hurt," Lankri told the Globe.

He said the mixed Jewish and Arab town had 50 public shelters and 500 private shelters beneath apartment houses, but many were full of junk and had not been cleaned in years.

The residents of Acre, which is just north of the modern port city of Haifa, have been confined to their homes for six days because of continuing rocket attacks from Hezbollah missile batteries across the border with Lebanon, about 10 miles to the north.

People here say they cannot remember the last time Acre was attacked in this way. Yesterday, several missiles fell in and around the town. One fell harmlessly in the holy garden shrine of the Baha'i Temple . There were no casualties.

Lankri and his staff, who are working around the clock to deliver essential supplies of food, milk, and diapers to families afraid to venture out, have prepared a bomb-proof bunker in the basement of City Hall to direct operations if things get worse. From there, municipal officials backed by army, police, and emergency services will direct the running of the town. Taped to a wall in the bunker yesterday were hastily assembled lists of bomb shelters, possible evacuation centers and key personnel.

One room contained numbered metal trunks full of fresh medical equipment. A large generator has been installed to provide electricity should the missiles take out the power supply.

Lankri said Acre's Jewish and Arab residents are facing their ordeal together. Half the town's population of 52,000 is Jewish, while the other half are Christian and Muslim Arabs.

``Arabs and Jews all live together in Acre," said Lankri. ``We are like a model of co-existence for the rest of Israel. . . . Everybody is afraid, Arabs and Jews together, when missiles are falling down from the skies," he added.

``All the people here support the government campaign against Hezbollah," he said. ``We hope they can solve the problem quickly because if there is peace there will be lots of tourists and lots of money to help all the people whose businesses have been closed for the past week."