Israel suspends airstrikes on south Lebanon for 48 hours amid outrage over village attack
JERUSALEM – Israel suspended air attacks on south Lebanon for 48 hours in the face of widespread outrage over an airstrike Sunday that killed at least 56 Lebanese, almost all of them women and children, when it leveled a building where they had taken shelter.The announcement – made by a State Department spokesman with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem – appeared to reflect American pressure on Israel to make some concession after the strike.In addition to suspending air attacks, Israel will also allow the opening of corridors for 24 hours for Lebanese civilians who want to leave south Lebanon for the north and would maintain land, sea and air corridors for humanitarian assistance, officials said.Israeli government officials confirmed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to an immediate 48-hour halt in airstrikes on Lebanon around midnight Sunday while the military concludes its inquiry into the attack on the south Lebanese village of Qana. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.The officials left open the possibility that Israel might hit targets to stop imminent attacks, and that the suspension could last less than 48 hours if the military completes its inquiry before then.Lebanon said the Israeli suspension was inadequate.”There is no cease-fire and there is no cessation of hostilities,” Lebanese special envoy Nouhad Mahoud told reporters at the United Nations late Sunday. “We are looking for something much more than that.”The bloodshed in Lebanon prompted Rice to cut short her Mideast mission and intensified world demands on Washington to back an immediate end to the fighting.A three-story house on the outskirts of Qana was leveled when a missile crashed into it at 1 a.m. Red Cross officials said 56 were killed and police said 34 children and 12 adult women were among the dead. It was worst single strike since Israel’s campaign in Lebanon began on July 12 when Hezbollah militants crossed the border into Israel and abducted two soldiers.The attack in Qana brought Lebanon’s death toll to more than 510 and pushed American peace efforts to a crucial juncture, as fury at the United States flared in Lebanon.The Beirut government said it would no longer negotiate over a U.S. peace package without an unconditional cease-fire.In Qana, workers pulled dirt-covered bodies of young boys and girls – dressed in the shorts and T-shirts they had been sleeping in – out of the mangled wreckage of the building. Bodies were carried in blankets.Two extended families, the Shalhoubs and the Hashems, had gathered in the house for shelter from another night of Israeli bombardment in the border area when the strike brought the building down.”I was so afraid. There was dirt and rocks and I couldn’t see. Everything was black,” said 13-year-old Noor Hashem, who survived, although her five siblings did not. She was pulled out of the ruins by her uncle, whose wife and five children also died.Israel apologized for the deaths but blamed Hezbollah guerrillas, saying they had fired rockets into northern Israel from near the building.Rice called the Qana bombing “awful” and said she wanted “a cease-fire as soon as possible.” It appeared to be her first real call for a quick end to the bloodshed.President Bush repeated his call for a “sustainable peace” in the Middle East and said: America mourns the loss of innocent life, those tragic occasions when innocent people are killed.”Before the suspension of airstrikes was announced, Olmert told Rice the campaign to crush Hezbollah could last up to two weeks more.”We will not stop this battle, despite the difficult incidents this morning,” he told his Cabinet after the strike, according to a participant. “If necessary, it will be broadened without hesitation.”The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session and approved a presidential statement that expressed “shock and distress” over Israel’s attack on Qana but stopped short of condemning it.After news of the deaths emerged, Rice telephoned Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and said she would stay in Jerusalem to continue work on a peace package, rather than make a planned visit to Beirut on Sunday. Saniora said he told her not to come.Rice decided to cut her Mideast trip short and return to Washington on Monday morning.British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who earlier supported the U.S. stance, said Washington must work faster to put together the broader deal it seeks.But Saniora said talk of a larger peace package must wait until the firing stops.”We will not negotiate until the Israeli war stops shedding the blood of innocent people,” he told a gathering of foreign diplomats. But he underlined that Lebanon stands by ideas for disarming Hezbollah that it put forward earlier this week and that Rice praised.He took a tough line and hinted that any Hezbollah response to the airstrike at the village of Qana was justified.”As long as the aggression continues there is response to be exercised,” he said, praising Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah for his “sacrifices.”Lebanon demanded an international probe.Hezbollah said on its Al-Manar television that it will retaliate, vowing, “The massacre at Qana will not go unanswered.” It hit northern Israel on Sunday with 157 rockets – the highest one-day total during the offensive – with one Israeli moderately wounded and 12 others lightly hurt, medics said.Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, warning the Muslim world will “not forgive” nations that stand in the way of stopping the fighting.Lebanese anger was heightened by memories of a 1996 Israeli artillery bombardment that hit a U.N. base in Qana, killing more than 100 Lebanese who had taken refuge from fighting. That attack sparked an international outcry that forced a halt to an Israeli offensive.In Beirut, some 5,000 protesters gathered in downtown Beirut, at one point attacking a U.N. building and burning American flags, shouting, “Destroy Tel Aviv, destroy Tel Aviv” and chanting for Hezbollah’s ally Syria to hit Israel. Another protest by about 50 people on a road leading to the U.S. Embassy forced security forces to close the road there.Images of children’s bodies tangled in the building’s ruins, being carried away on blankets or wrapped in plastic sheeting were aired on Arab news networks.In Qana, Khalil Shalhoub was helping pull out the dead until he saw his brother’s body taken out on a stretcher.”Why are they killing us? What have we done?” he screamed.Israel said Hezbollah had fired more than 40 rockets from Qana before the airstrike, including several from near the building that was bombed.At a news conference in Tel Aviv Sunday night, military officers showed aerial footage taken two days ago of Katyushas being fired in proximity to houses in Qana, and of a Katyusha launcher firing missiles and then being driven into Qana and hidden inside a house.Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir accused Hezbollah of “using their own civilian population as human shields.”Israel said residents of Qana had been warned to leave. On Thursday, the Israeli military’s Al-Mashriq radio that broadcasts into southern Lebanon warned residents their villages would be “totally destroyed” if missiles were fired from them. Leaflets with similar messages were dropped in some areas Saturday.But Shalhoub and others in the village said residents were too terrified to take the road out of the village.The road to the nearest main city, Tyre, is lined with charred wreckage and smashed buildings from repeated Israeli bombings.More than 750,000 Lebanese have fled their homes in the fighting. But many thousands more are still believed holed up in the south, taking refuge in schools, hospitals or basements of apartment buildings amid the fighting – many of them too afraid to flee.Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr disputed allegations that Hezbollah was firing missiles from Qana.”What do you expect Israel to say? Will it say that it killed 40 children and women?” he told Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV station.Before dawn Sunday, Israeli ground forces backed by heavy artillery fire crossed the border and clashed with Hezbollah guerrillas in the Taibeh Project area, about two miles inside Lebanon. Hezbollah said two of its fighters were killed. The Israeli military said eight soldiers were wounded.Some 460 Lebanese, mostly civilians, had been killed in the campaign through Saturday, according to the Health Ministry – before the attacks on Qana. Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 18 civilians, Israeli authorities said.—-Kathy Gannon reported from Qana, Lebanon.