Israel agrees to 48-hour halt in bombing

By Sue Pleming

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won a 48-hour suspension from Israel of its aerial bombardment of south Lebanon but ended a stymied peace mission on Monday without a call for an overall ceasefire.

The announcement came after a tumultuous day of diplomacy following Israel’s air strike on a Lebanese village that killed at least 54 people, most of them children, and led Rice to cancel a trip to Beirut after being told she was not welcome.

Israel would also coordinate with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour window for south Lebanon residents to leave the area if they wished, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. Israeli officials confirmed the deals.

"Israel will only attack targets which are about to attack Israeli targets," an Israeli government spokesman said.

Ereli made clear Israel had the right to "take action against targets preparing attacks against it," in a restatement of U.S. policy on the Jewish state’s right to defend itself.

"Israel has agreed to a 48-hour suspension of aerial activity in south Lebanon to investigate today’s tragic incident in Qana," said Ereli, accompanying Rice on her trip.

Rice held extended meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at which the top U.S. diplomat urged Israel to use restraint after the Qana bombing, in which 37 children died while sheltering in a basement with their families.


The goal of the suspension, said Ereli, was to improve the flow of humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of families and children in south Lebanon caught up in the 19-day war.

"The United States welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help to relieve the suffering of the children and families of Southern Lebanon," he said.

After the Qana bombing, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Rice he did not want her to come to his country for planned meetings, saying he could not hold any talks on resolving the crisis before an immediate ceasefire.

Rice will leave for Washington on Monday after a week of Middle East diplomacy, but U.S. officials said they were still in close contact with Siniora’s office. Rice is expected to make a statement at 0500 GMT (8 a.m. Israeli time) before she leaves.

A U.S. official said Rice wanted to go back to Washington to focus on getting a U.N. Security Council resolution for a "sustainable and durable" ceasefire.

The aerial bombardment suspension is a victory for Rice but her failure to call for an immediate ceasefire will disappoint many U.S. allies, already concerned before the Qana bombing about the hundreds of civilian casualties in the war.

At least 542 people have been killed in Lebanon, though the health minister estimated the toll at 750 including unrecovered bodies. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed in the war.

Rice, who was with Israel’s defense minister when she heard of the bombing, said she was deeply saddened by the Qana killings but did not show any public anger toward the Jewish state, a strong U.S. ally.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials said privately she had strong words with Olmert and made her distress clear.

Both Israel and the United States have said an immediate ceasefire would be meaningless unless Hizbollah could no longer carry out raids and rocket attacks and the Shi’ite militia was eventually disarmed as demanded by a U.N. resolution.

At her meeting with Olmert, Rice discussed the size and mandate for an international force that could deploy in southern Lebanon to help ensure peace.

(Additional reporting by Jerusalem bureau)

© 2006 Reuters