Air strike kills more than 60, including 37 children as Lebanon shuns Rice; US says Tel Aviv agrees to 48-hour suspension of aerial activity in south
QANA (Agencies) â€” An Israeli air strike Sunday killed more than 60 Lebanese, mostly women and children, when it leveled a building where they had taken shelter. Amid widespread anger over the deadliest attack in nearly three weeks of warfare, a US official said Israel agreed to a 48-hour halt to aerial activity over southern Lebanon.
The stunning bloodshed prompted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cut short her Mideast mission and increased world demands on Washington to back an immediate end to the fighting.
Lebanon told her she was unwelcome in Beirut for talks.
The announcement of the pause in overflights â€” made by State Department spokesman Adam Ereli â€” appeared to reflect American pressure on Israel. Ereli said Israel has reserved the right to attack targets if it learns that attacks are being prepared against them. There was no immediate confirmation by Israeli officials.
The attack in the village of 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 US peace package without an unconditional ceasefire. UN chief Kofi Annan sharply criticised world leaders â€” implicitly Washington â€” for ignoring his previous calls for a stop.
In Qana, workers pulled dirt-covered bodies of young boys and girls â€” dressed in the shorts and T-shirts they’d been sleeping in â€” out of the mangled wreckage of the three-storey building. Bodies were carried in blankets. Two extended families, the Shalhoubs and the Hashems, had gathered together in the house for shelter from another night of Israeli bombardment in the border area when the 1:00am strike brought the building down.
â€œI was so afraid. There was dirt and rocks and I couldn’t see. Everything was black,â€ 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 apologised for the deaths but blamed Hizbollah fighters, saying they had fired rockets into northern Israel from near the building. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the campaign to crush Hizbollah would continue, telling Rice it could last up to two weeks more.
â€œWe will not stop this battle, despite the difficult incidents this morning,â€ he told his Cabinet after the strike, according to a participant. â€œIf necessary, it will be broadened without hesitation.â€ The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to debate a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire â€” a step Washington has stood nearly alone at the council in refusing until the disarmament of Hizbollah is assured.
In a jab at the United States, Annan told the council in unusually frank terms that he was â€œdeeply dismayedâ€ his previous calls for a halt were ignored. â€œAction is needed now before many more children, women and men become casualties of a conflict over which they have no control,â€ he said.
After news of the deaths emerged, Rice telephoned Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and said she would stay in occupied Jerusalem to continue work on a peace package, rather than make a planned Sunday visit to Beirut. Siniora 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 only days earlier gave his support to the US stance, struck a more urgent note Sunday, saying Washington must work faster to put together the broader deal it seeks.
â€œWe have to get this now. We have to speed this whole process up,â€ Blair said. â€œThis has got to stop and stop on both sides.â€ But Lebanon’s Siniora said talk of a larger peace package must wait until the firing stops.
â€œWe will not negotiate until the Israeli war stops shedding the blood of innocent people,â€ he told a gathering of foreign diplomats. But he underlined that Lebanon stands by ideas for disarming Hizbollah that it put forward earlier this week and that Rice praised.
He took a tough line and hinted that any Hizbollah response to the air strike at the village of Qana was justified. â€œAs long as the aggression continues there is response to be exercised,â€ he said, praising Hizbollah’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Hizbollah said on its Manar television that it will retaliate, vowing, â€œthe massacre at Qana will not go unansweredâ€.Â The largest toll from a single Israeli strike in past weeks was around a dozen â€” and Sunday’s dramatic deaths stunned Lebanese. Heightening the anger were memories of a 1996 Israeli artillery bombardment that hit a UN 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 UN building and burning American flags, shouting, â€œDestroy Tel Aviv, destroy Tel Avivâ€ and chanting for Hizbollah’s ally Syria to hit Israel. Another protest by about 50 people on a road leading to the US 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. The dead included at least 34 children and 12 women, Lebanese security officials said.
In Qana, Khalil Shalhoub was helping pull out the dead until he saw his brother’s body taken out on a stretcher.
â€œWhy are they killing us? What have we done?â€ he screamed.
Israel said Hizbollah had fired more than 40 rockets from Qana before the air strike, including several from near the building that was bombed. Foreign ministry official Gideon Meir accused Hizbollah of â€œusing their own civilian population as human shieldsâ€. It said residents of the village had been warned to leave, but Shalhoub and others in Qana 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 â€” many of them too afraid to flee on roads heavily hit by Israeli strikes.
Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr disputed allegations that Hizbollah was firing missiles from Qana.
â€œWhat do you expect Israel to say? Will it say that it killed 40 children and women?â€ he told Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV station.
On Thursday, the Israeli military’s Mashriq Radio that broadcasts into southern Lebanon warned residents that their villages would be â€œtotally destroyedâ€ if missiles were fired from them. Leaflets with similar messages were dropped in some areas Saturday.
Israel on Sunday also launched its second significant ground incursion into southern Lebanon. Before dawn, Israeli forces backed by heavy artillery fire crossed the border and clashed with Hizbollah fighters in the Taibeh Project area, some three or four kilometres inside Lebanon.
Hizbollah said two of its fighters were killed and claimed eight Israeli soldiers also died. The Israeli military said only that four soldiers were wounded when fighters hit a tank with a missile.
US President George W. Bush vowed Sunday to work with the United Nations for what he called “a sustainable peace” in Lebanon.
Bush himself did not mention the attack by name but said the latest losses of civilian life demanded that world powers work together to resolve the crisis through the United Nations.
“The United States is resolved to work with members of the United Nations Security Council to develop a resolution that will enable the region to have a sustainable peace, a peace that lasts, a peace that will enable mothers and fathers to raise their children in a hopeful world,” Bush told reporters.
“The current situation in the Middle East is a reminder that all of us must work together to achieve a sustainable peace,” he said.
Bush has so far resisted backing a UN resolution proposed by France demanding an immediate ceasefire. But Washington’s closest allies used language Sunday that showed they were not willing to give the Israeli offensive much more time.