(This Nov. 6 story has been corrected to change the schoolgirls' family name to Chour, not Ayyoub, which is their mother's maiden name, in paragraph 1)
By Abdelaziz Boumzar
AYNATA, Lebanon (Reuters) - Sisters Rimas, Taline and Lianne Chour were preparing to travel to Beirut for temporary schooling there because of escalating clashes between Israel and Hezbollah militants in their native southern Lebanon.
When they set off on Sunday, a missile Lebanon says Israel fired hit their car, killing all three and their grandmother, and leaving their mother wounded and confused.
"She was shouting, 'where are my children, where are my children?'" said their uncle Samir Ayyoub, who witnessed the strike while he drove in convoy with them in his own car.
"The children were burning to death inside the vehicle."
Ayyoub, a local journalist, spoke to Reuters on Monday as he picked through the wreckage of the car. He held up schoolbooks and bags charred in the blast.
"Are these the schoolbooks and bags of terrorists?" he said.
Lebanese authorities say Israel carried out the strike and that Beirut will submit a complaint to the United Nations over the killing of civilians.
Israel's military said its troops engaged a vehicle in Lebanon on Sunday which was "identified as a suspected transport for terrorists", and it was looking into reports there were civilians inside.
The sisters, aged 14, 12 and 10 respectively, are the latest victims of a Middle East war that began on Oct. 7 when Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked southern Israel, killing some 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
In response, Israel has pummelled the Gaza Strip which Hamas controls with air strikes and a ground invasion and has killed 10,000 Palestinians there including 4,000 children.
'THE KIDS WERE PLAYING'
Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Hamas ally, has since then regularly clashed with Israeli forces at the Lebanon-Israel border as fears mount that violence could spiral into a much wider conflict.
Israeli strikes have killed some 60 Hezbollah fighters and at least 10 civilians, Lebanese security officials say.
Samir Ayyoub says he believes an Israeli drone carried out the attack, and that it would have easily been able to see that the car was carrying children.
"The kids were playing around near the car before they got into it and we set off. It was clear these were children," he said.
He and other family members said there had been bombardment in the area during the morning but that it had stopped, and all they could hear was the sound of drones in the sky before the blast. Reuters could not corroborate Ayyoub’s account.
One of the girls’ aunts, Ahlam Ibrahim, said she did not expect this latest dark chapter for southern Lebanon to be the last. “It’s not new with Israel, this isn’t the first time we’ve been through this kind of thing,” she said.
The current fighting marks the worst violence across the border since Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006 which killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, most of them soldiers.
Among those killed in southern Lebanon in the current conflict is Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah. Lebanon's army blamed Israel and Israel's military says it is reviewing the case. Reuters has called on Israel to conduct a "thorough, swift and transparent investigation".
(Writing by John Davison in Beirut; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)