Israel breaks promise to halt bombing


Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes in southern Lebanon on Monday, hours after agreeing to temporarily halt raids while investigating a bombing that killed nearly 60 Lebanese civilians, mostly women and children seeking shelter.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to a 48-hour halt in the airstrikes beginning at 2 a.m. Monday while the military concludes its inquiry into the attack on the south Lebanese village of Qana.

But Israel left open the option it might hit targets to stop imminent attacks or if the military completed its inquiry within 48 hours.

Monday’s airstrikes near the village of Taibe were meant to protect ground forces operating in the area and were not targeting anyone or anything specific, the army said.

In a second airstrike around the port city of Tyre, Israel accidentally killed a Lebanese soldier when it hit a car that it believed was carrying a senior Hezbollah official, the Israeli army said. Lebanese security officials said the soldier was killed by a rocket strike from a drone aircraft.

The Israeli army justified the action, saying the leader believed to have been in the car was a threat to Israel. Instead, the car was carrying a Lebanese army officer and soldiers.

"They were, of course, not the targets and we regret the incident," the army said.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah guerrillas attacked an Israeli tank in southern Lebanon, wounding three soldiers, the military said. The attack occurred near Kila and Taibe on the border, where Israeli ground forces have been fighting Hezbollah guerrillas for nearly two weeks.

Israel Radio also reported that Hezbollah rockets hit the northern town of Kiryat Shemona. No casualties were reported, the radio said.

AP Television News footage showed two Israeli tanks side by side in southern Lebanon, with flames suddenly covering one of them. Soldiers soon emerged from one tank and did not appear to be badly hurt.

Hours before the fighting resumed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the U.N. Security Council to arrange a cease-fire agreement by week’s end that would include an international force to help Lebanese forces control southern Lebanon.

But Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz made clear that Israel would not agree to an immediate cease-fire and in fact planned to expand military operations in Lebanon.

"It’s forbidden to agree to an immediate cease-fire," Peretz told parliament as several Arab legislators heckled him and demanded an immediate halt to the offensive. "Israel will expand and strengthen its activities against the Hezbollah."

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli had noted in a statement late Sunday that, in connection with the halt in bombing, "Israel, of course, has reserved the right to take action against targets preparing attack against it."

Israel’s top ministers were to discuss expanding the army’s ground operation at a meeting later Monday, while thousands of reserve soldiers trained for the possibility they will be sent into Lebanon to participate in the 20-day-long battle.

The bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana on Sunday led to demands around the world for an immediate cease-fire.

Olmert told Rice over the weekend that Israel would need 10-14 more days to finish its offensive, and Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Army Radio on Monday he did not believe the fighting was over yet.

"I’m convinced that we won’t finish this war until it’s clear that Hezbollah has no more abilities to attack Israel from south Lebanon. This is what we are striving for," Ramon said.

The stunning bloodshed in Qana increased international pressure on Washington to back an immediate end to the fighting and prompted Rice to cut short her Mideast mission to return home Monday.

In a nationally televised speech before leaving Israel, Rice said she will seek international consensus for a cease-fire and a "lasting settlement" in the conflict between Lebanon and Israel through a U.N. Security Council resolution this week.

"I am convinced that only by achieving both will the Lebanese people be able to control their country and their future, and the people of Israel finally be able to live free of attack from terrorist groups in Lebanon," Rice said.

The army said that the temporary cessation of aerial activity would allow the opening of corridors for Lebanese civilians who want to leave south Lebanon for the north and would maintain land, sea and air corridors for humanitarian assistance.

But Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah had Israel’s motives, telling Lebanese television it was just "an attempt to absorb international indignation over the Qana massacre."

By early afternoon Monday, roads from villages into the port city of Tyre and heading north along the coast were packed with thousands of refugees in pickup trucks and cars. With many of the main roads too shattered for use, cars drove on dirt side roads with white flags fluttering out windows or white sheets covering the roofs.

Lebanese Red Cross teams escorted by U.N. observers went to the village of Srifa to dig up more than 50 bodies believed still buried under rubble since Israeli strikes wiped out an entire neighborhood on July 19. The bodies have begun decomposing, the Red Cross said.

The largest death toll from a single Israeli strike before Sunday was about a dozen, and the Qana attack, where at least 34 children and 12 women died, stunned Lebanese. Heightening the anger were memories of a 1996 Israeli artillery bombardment that hit a U.N. base in Qana, killing more than 100 Lebanese who had taken refuge there from fighting. That attack sparked an international outcry that forced a halt to an Israeli offensive.

Hezbollah vowed on its Al-Manar television: "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 wounded moderately and 12 others hurt slightly, medics said.

Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 18 civilians, Israeli authorities said,

Israel apologized for the deaths and promised an investigation but said Hezbollah had fired more than 40 rockets from Qana before the airstrike, including several from near the building that was bombed. Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir accused Hezbollah of "using their own civilian population as human shields."

More than 750,000 Lebanese have fled their homes in the fighting. But many thousands more are still believed holed up in the south — many of them too afraid to flee on roads heavily hit by Israeli strikes.

The attack on 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.

At the United Nations, the Security Council approved a statement expressing "extreme shock and distress" at the bloodshed and calling for an end to violence, stopping short of a demand for an immediate cease-fire.

In a jab at the United States, Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the council in unusually frank terms that he was "deeply dismayed" his previous calls for a halt were ignored.

"Action is needed now before many more children, women and men become casualties of a conflict over which they have no control," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.